It might have been difficult to foresee the challenges facing Stan Lai. Currently a visiting professor at Stanford, the drama department website describes him as “one of the most influential playwrights/directors in Asia” and “one of the most important voices in contemporary Chinese-language theatre.” The posters around campus for his recent production boast a quote from the January 10, 2007 issue of The New York Times: “[Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land] may be the most popular contemporary play in China… the laughter gives way to sobs and the audience is left to contemplate the burdens of memory, history, longing, and love – and the power of theater itself.” What could he attempt that would not guarantee the acclaim he has received over his past work?
Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, a drama department production, debuted on February 22 in Memorial Auditorium. Unlike earlier performances, it was the first time the play had ever been performed for a North American audience in English, as well as the play’s first official translation into English ever. It was unclear what kind of audience the play would draw, or whether cultural differences would prevent its message from resonating with a wider audience. Conversely, would the diversity of the play’s cast detract from the play’s meaning?
Lai proved pessimists wrong and their concerns unwarranted. Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land leaves its patrons with a universal message palatable to all kinds of people: how love can push and pull, and how it feels to be denied what one wants most in life. It does so from so many angles that one can find one with which to identify. Opening night drew a diverse audience that shared in laughter at near-slapstick moments and in tears at the most tragic moments. Lai addressed many of the worries directly: tension in frustrating times was broken with lines like “I’m not even Asian!” or lines criticizing the exchange between English and Spanish as not the cultural equivalent between Chinese and Taiwanese, to the audience’s laughter.
The premise of the play is that two very different plays, the tragedy Secret Love and the comedy In Peach Blossom Land, are double-booked to rehearse in the same theater on the same night, both with very narrow deadlines for performance. Secret Love is the story of two young lovers separated when the Communists take over China in 1949 and communication between China and Taiwan is cut; In Peach Blossom Land takes place in ancient China where a fisherman jilted by his wife and landlord sets off and finds himself in the mythical Peach Blossom Land. Despite the plays’ very different directions, both manage to deliver similar messages about life and love. To add to the viewers’ entertainment, they enjoy a very different experience than most would watching a show in Memorial Auditorium: seating for two hundred thirty is actually built on Memorial Auditorium’s stage, and the only time they see the venue’s normal seating is when the curtains are lifted at the play’s conclusion. It adds to the effect of watching a play about plays competing for stage time in a theater.
The acting may seem shaky at first, but when the audience discovers the play’s premise, they realize it is not only deliberate, but to the actors’ credit that they can convey such versatility. When the audience places its faith in the cast’s hands, they will discover their strong talents are integral to the play being as successful as it is. As only one example, when the character Jiang sees his former love after forty years of separation, those watching are hard pressed to be able pay attention to anything except the emotion on the stage. Such should be the goal of theater, and whether one questions Jiang’s search for his former love and its consequences on his wife, or what antics will happen next in Peach Blossom Land, the audience will not be disappointed.
Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land has a number of elements that will please all different kinds of people. The play provides not only multiple kinds of genuine entertainment, but also conveys messages to consider after the play. If the search for love and its repercussions are not your interest, the play includes historical references, both to the China of centuries past and to the effects of Communist tension on everyday people trying to escape its oppression. Stan Lai rose to the challenge of bringing this story to a wider, more diverse audience, and I wish the play success beyond Stanford.