Wild Swans

Er Hong (Katie Leung) visits her father (Orion Lee) in the labor camp. Photo Michael J. Lutch

Privilege.  Today, most of us have it in such abundance that we struggle to acknowledge its very existence.  We’re not used to dealing with the problem of having too much.

This burden plays a central role in Jung Chang’s blockbuster memoir Wild Swans, adapted for for the stage by Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater and London’s Young Vic.  Her’s is an epic tale of three generations of Chinese women, following the rise and evolution of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Chang’s family trades in bound feet and jewels, before self-criticism and sacrifice as the war lord’s concubine gives birth to the Communist party leader.   The book sold 10 million copies in 30 languages, but is still banned in China.

The A.R.T. — one of America’s most adventurous theatre companies — is always up for challenging the space in which we act out the meaning of life, and this production is no exception.

Those familiar with Chang’s book will recognize much here.  Though the story has been abbreviated and focused on Chang’s parents who were deeply involved in Communist Party happenings, Chang’s original narrative thrust and voice remain consistent.

Indeed, where this production excels is in visually representing China’s monumental changes over four decades.  Each of the play’s four acts depicts a distinct time period, and each set change is acted out by the company as a forceful collective movement from the past into the future.

I sometimes found myself wishing the cast — who are all of Chinese heritage — would stop talking, so we could see how they would transfigure the stage next.  It’s a long journey from the earthy and composed opening market of 1948 to the chaotic, mirrored video installation representing 1978 in Act Five.  In many ways this visual transformation, which at various points requires the cast to cover the stage with dirt and then remove it with brooms and gusto, does a better job of communicating China’s transformation than the abridged script.

When Wild Swans closes at the A.R.T. on March 11, it will then move to London’s Young Vic for a run coinciding with the Olympics.  Though London doesn’t figure prominently in this production, it is a significant place in the book and indeed is where Chang makes her home today.

It’s also where this transformational story should find its way to a worldly and eager audience ready to embrace it for perhaps the first time. (How many athletes from the Chinese contingent will find their way to the Young Vic between events?)  Though Cambridge audiences are surely worldly and eager, I’m afraid the privilege of over-exposure might lead us to nit-pick rather than be changed.


Wild Swans
Presented by the American Repertory Theater
At the Loeb Drama Center
through March 11
Tickets: $25-$100

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