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Warrior Sisters of Wu

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 14, 2024

David Lee Huynh and Kim Wuan
Photo by Russ Rowland
"Romance of the Three Kingdoms," the classic 14th century Chinese novel attributed to author Luo Guanzhong, is a sprawling epic that merges history, fiction and mythology. The book comprises 120 chapters and hundreds of pages, and it chronicles the tumultuous period of fighting among feudal lords and hostile armies at the end of the Han Dynasty (around 200 AD). The Pan Asian Repertory Theatre production, Warrior Sisters of Wu (currently playing at A.R.T./New York Theatres) adapts just a sliver of the original text and runs a fleet 100 minutes plus intermission. Playwright Damon Chua focuses on a lesser-known episode featuring minor characters, and in the process has created an East Asian, third-century rom com with inspiration drawn from Shakespeare comedies, Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," and modern sense and sensibilities.

The drumbeat of war is pounding in the distance, but Warrior Sisters of Wu is centrally concerned with the age-old battle of the sexes. At the beginning of the play, Lord Qiao (Michael C. Liu) discusses the potential engagement of his daughter Qing (Kim Wuan) with their oily relative Xie (Dinh James Doan, who also plays a Tea Merchant). As the closest male relation, Xie is set to inherit the family's house, and the arranged marriage would keep the property within the family, as it were.

Qing, however, will have none of it. She and her sister Wan (Nancy Ma) have been training in sword combat and mastering the principles of Kung Fu (Michael G. Chin choreographed the impressive fight scenes) under General Zhou Yu (Vin Kridakorn), who is second in command. Qing does not intend to marry, but instead wants to go to the front line and fight for the Kingdom of Wu under the first in command, General Sun Ce (David Lee Huynh).

Lovers Wan and Zhou Yu are determined to bring the stubbornly single Qing and equally relationship-averse Sun Ce together, but like Katherine and Petruchio, Beatrice and Benedick, and Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, they are at once forcefully repelled by each other. In their initial encounters, they engage in verbal skirmishes, but when Qing bests the general in a martial arts competition, he begrudgingly gives her a chance to lead his men in a training session. A combination of humiliation, regretfulness, and a bit of matchmaking trickery gradually softens the hardened hearts.

While the play is set in feudal China and draws on well-known tropes from archetypal romantic plays and novels, Chua also imbues the writing with contemporary feminist language. For instance, Qing initially despises Sun Ce, claiming that "he's part of the insidious patriarchy." Arguing that chauvinism is a hallmark of powerful men, she says, "One can be honorable and sexist. In fact, the more honorable, the more sexist." In addition to gender politics, Warrior Sisters also addresses the clash of old-world, traditional values manifested in Confucianism, and the evolving, progressive attitudes represented by Taoism.

Although there are a lot of ideas, director Jeff Liu and his design team bridge the worlds of the play effectively. The audience sits on two sides of the space, and Sheryl Liu's minimalist set, which makes use of Chinese screens, effortlessly moves the action between Lord Qiao's home and various locales throughout the Kingdom of Wu. Karen Boyer's brightly colored period apparel and Ayumu Poe Saegusa's lighting provide nicely atmospheric touches. Gregory Casparian's projections on the opposing walls include Chinese calligraphy and floating confetti, giving the impression that the spectators are surrounded by and enveloped in the ancient kingdom. All of the elements, including the sound design by Da Xu, are used to particularly strong effect as the company of actors present an interesting epilogue about the afterlife of the original novel.

Unfortunately, the historic dimensions are often at odds with the layers of literary allusions and references to contemporary debates about gender equality. Indeed, the imbalance of the yin and yang (which is referenced several times throughout) detracts from the pleasures one expects from an absorbing romantic comedy. The production falters as it attempts to negotiate the right measure of comedy, combat, and political intrigue. Additionally, the main characters often speak in platitudes and mask their feelings behind Confucius sayings. There are few glimpses of their vulnerabilities until they inevitably drop their facades completely. As a result, the sparks of romantic passion do not ignite. And to riff on Jane Austen, one might argue, it is a universally known truth, that this is the essential component of a rom com.

Warrior Sisters of Wu
Through March 10, 2024
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: