Snow in Midsummer Review: Injustice Against Woman, in Ancient China and Now

A young widow is framed for a murder she didn’t commit, and her ghost causes a three-year drought as revenge, forcing the community to acknowledge her innocence: That’s the story told in “The Injustice to Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth,”  a play written by Guan Hanqing during the Yuan Dynasty some 800 years ago. For “Snow in Midsummer,” now streaming online through May 29 , Chinese-American playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig has translated and adapted Guan’s tale, transposing its setting to modern China. 

The result is an unusual hybrid that’s not always easy to sort out, bleeding together a supernatural ghost story with a melodrama and a mystery full of over-the-top revelations, filtered through a 21st century sensibility that offers a harsh look at contemporary Chinese society. 

It’s a hybrid in a different way as well. First produced for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2017, “Snow in Midsummer” was presented in 2018 on stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s a video of that production that is now streaming on O!, the new digital platform that OSF artistic director Nataki Garrett in an introduction, calls “our fourth stage.” 

The implication here delights me — that they will continue to offer productions online, even after the “reopening,” thus joining such old hands at video capture of live stage performances as The National Theater and The Metropolitan Opera. 

I experienced occasional glitches in the transmission of “Snow in Midsummer” (never completely clear whether that’s only my computer or their website) and the video lacks the sophisticated camera work of the older practitioners. But director Justin Audibert’s production, with its fine cast and intervals of theatrical spectacle, provoked both moments of pleasure and pangs of nostalgia from the get-go: At the start of the play, the widow Dou Yi (Jessica Ko) comes out on the stage selling her wares, interacting with the audience members in the front seats, and then briefly breaks character, to audience laughter, to ask them to promise to turn off their cell phones. (I wished I could oblige.)

That first scene turns out to be a prologue.  The action advances three years, when a gathering of colorful townsfolk from New Harmony — plagued by locusts, rats, and economic disparity due to three years of drought — greet a newcomer named Tianyun (Amy Kim Waschke),  dressed in a smart blue business suit.  She is a businesswoman, the largest synthetic flower manufacturer in the country, and she has agreed to buy the local factory from its owner Handsome Zhang (Daisuke Tsuji.)  Handsome is selling, we soon learn, because he wants to marry Rocket Wu (Will Dao) and settle somewhere else in the world – the clear but unspoken implication that there would be no place for a gay couple to live happily in the People’s Republic of China.

Fairly quickly, then, we’re getting characters and situations – a female industrialist, a gay couple — that we can say with confidence are Cowhig’s inventions, not Guan’s.  Another likely addition: One of the townsfolk, Worker Chen (Monique Holt) speaks only in sign language.

Tianyun has a young adopted daughter Fei-fei (Olivia Pham), and it is through this spooky, possessed child that we eventually work our way back to Dou Yi. Dou Yi was accused of murdering Handsome’s father, and has been put to death. Fei-fei, who has been influenced by a Buddhist nanny, is infused with a spirituality that her mother dismisses as superstitious beliefs, but is real enough for her to make contact with the ghost of Dou Yi. 

From here, it gets…complicated. After her execution, for example, Dou Yi’s organs were removed and sold to patients in need throughout the world – including Rocket, who needed a heart. Rocket learns where his heart came from at the same time that the audience does —  one of the first of many revelations. Handsome had lied to him about where the heart had come from. 

It’s worth noting here that the harvesting of organs from Chinese prisoners was a shockingly widespread practice , according to a report by an international tribunal in 2019. In other words, this too is something added to the drama by Cowhig, who spent much of her childhood in China, as the daughter of a Taiwanese mother and an American diplomat father stationed in Beijing.  This is the sort of ghoulish detail that those less in the know might well have assumed was part of Guan’s original ghost story. (It’s worth checking out the 2018 Study Guide for more such cultural research.)

Given her sophisticated knowledge of the culture, it seems almost a shame that most viewers will probably take in “Snow in Midsummer” as nothing but an updated,  confused mix of old and new popular genres, in which we learn during its two hour runtime, who really killed Master Zhang, and why, etc.

What ties together the disparate eras and elements is the consistency in the unfair treatment of women.  “Snowing in June” (one of the supernatural signs, along with drought, that Dou Yi proclaimed would prove her innocence) is reportedly an expression the Chinese still use to talk about a miscarriage of justice

Snow in Midsummer
Online through May 29
By Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig 
Based on the classical Chinese drama The Injustice to Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth by Guan Hanqing  
Directed by Justin Audibert 
Running time: two hours
Tickets: $15

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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