Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Brilliant Acting in the Intense, Dramatic
Red at TheatreWorks

Also see Richard's reviews of Henry IV, Part One and Part Two and Orpheus Descending

Hua (Francis Jue) embraces his apprentice Ling (Grace Hsu)
TheatreWorks is presenting the Northern California premiere of Chay Yew's Red at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. This is a riveting drama about Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution that swept through China during those turbulent days in the '60s. The intense drama features three brilliant actors who are splendid in their roles: Francis Jue, Allison Sie and Grace Hsu. They work like clockwork together.

Red premiered at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle in 1998 and since then it has had several personifications, most recently by the East West Players in Los Angeles where the author. Francis Jue performed Master Hua in a production at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia recently and the play has also been presented by the Singapore Repertory Theatre.

Red takes place in the barren Beijing Opera House from the 1960s to present day Shanghai. Sonja Wong Pickford (Allison Sie), who describes herself as "the Asian Danielle Steele," is a popular Chinese American romance novelist who's come to present day China to write a book of substance. She has written such American best sellers as "Love in the Jade Pagoda" and "Bound Feet, Bound Lives" that have been made into "Plays of the Week" on television. She is burned out and has returned to Shanghai for her roots to recharge her sagging spirits.

Sonja meets the ghost of the famed Chinese opera star Hau Wai Mun (Francis Jue), who was famous for his portrayal of women on the Chinese stage. She wants to know more about Master Hua, who was tortured and killed by the Red Guard in the '60s for practicing a reactionary art form. Also involved is Ling (Grace Hsu), who wanted to be the first woman to appear in a Chinese opera prior to Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. Later, she becomes a member of the Red Guard who is in charge of deprogramming Hua who is considered a dreaded counterrevolutionary. Ling is 100 percent for Mao's little red book and sings a chorus of "Our red flag flies defiant in the sky!"

Scenes change effortlessly as the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution is presented, showing how art was destroyed. There are books burned on the stage, and Hua continues to lament the rich legacy of 1000 years of Chinese art. There are long scenes of Hua rehearsing with his apprentice Ling before she becames a Red Guard. Most of the time, Sonja is superfluous to most of the action and becomes an onlooker. Many of the dialogues are diatribe monologues of the workings of culture between the two opposing forces. Even Sonja's disparagement of her commercial work as a "romantic novelist" is brought into play.

Francis Jue (on Broadway in M. Butterfly and recently in Thoroughly Modern Millie plus many roles in TheatreWorks productions) as Hua is utterly convincing. He is self-righteous, stern and yet completely sympathetic. His diction is perfect. Grace Hsu (recently in the Playwright Theatre of New Jersey production of Foreign Exchange) has the toughest performance of the three since she is playing the philosophy-discharging antagonist Ling. She is excellent in the role as she changes from a 10 year child wanting to be the first woman playing women's roles in Chinese Opera to a hard working teenage apprentice actor to a hard core Red Guard against the reactionary ways of Chinese art. Allison Sie (Los Angeles actress recently in San Jose Rep production of The Wind Called Mary) plays Sonja as a casual onlooker but with problems that come out gradually in the drama. You are compelled to watch all three of the characters as the play progresses.

Director Robert Kelly does a splendid job in the smooth scene changes from past to present. He give the production much heart against the political harangue of the piece. Ching-Yi Wei's set design of a stage within a stage is like a Chinese box, in flaming red with sliding doors opening up for some effective sets. The costume of the Chinese opera singer by Jill Bowers is gorgeous.

Red runs through Sunday, August 8th at the TheatreWorks location at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets can be obtained at 650-903-6000 or visit

Their next production is the world premiere of Andrew Lippa and Brian Crawley's pre-Broadway musical, A Little Princess

Photo: David Allen

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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