“Snow in Midsummer,” now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a modern adaptation of a classic Chinese drama written in the late 1200s.
Its author, Guan Hanqing, is considered the Chinese Shakespeare.
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s adaptation is indeed Shakespearean. Humor, horror, tragic deeds, curses and redemption compel us to think about justice, mercy and even the future of the world.
The play was first performed last year in England by the Royal Shakespeare Company, under the direction of Justin Audibert, who also directed the Ashland production. The stage effects are sumptuous, with magical lighting, a gigantic statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, and even a mound of dead locusts.
The complex plot relates the sad fate of Dou Yi, a young widow falsely accused of murder in the factory town of New Harmony. After her execution, her body parts are sold around the world, and there is nothing left of her to bury and lay to rest.
Powerfully played by Jessica Ko, the poor victim becomes a vengeful ghost seeking justice. She curses her town with three years of drought and swarms of locusts.
In this contemporary version of the historic tale, we see what life is like in today’s enterprising China, and how some ancient superstitions seem eternal. Cowhig’s play artfully examines lives that are delineated by past and present beliefs. In both eras women, even those who become wealthy business owners, are oppressed by men.
“Snow in Midsummer” is as melodramatic as any soap opera, but its thought-provoking themes run deep and the well acted characters, including a delightful little girl, are fascinating.