Take two plays, one an ancient farce and the other a modern tale of lost love. Accidentally schedule them for a dress rehearsal on the same stage at the same time, and you have the starting point for “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land,” now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The comedy, and sometimes tearjerker, written in 1986 by Taiwan-born Stan Lai, is the most popular play ever performed in China and Taiwan. Now, translated and directed by Lai, the play can be seen in its U.S. premiere at the Bowmer Theatre.
The concept is intriguing in that both plays within a play deal with how circumstances influence love and marriage. The acting is strong, but the work isn’t as funny or as deep as I had hoped.
In “Peach Blossom Land,” Tao, a poor fisherman well acted by Eugene Ma, can’t provide for his wife, who takes a lover. The rough, noisy slapstick scenes of home life are painfully excessive. Tao is so miserable that he goes fishing on a treacherous river, barely survives, and lands in Peach Blossom Land, where gentle citizens hunt injured butterflies and return them to their families.
The other play, “Secret Love,” begins in Shanghai in 1948. A young man and woman, Jiang and Yun, talk of a happy future. Their dialogue is awkwardly expository, which I assume is a deliberate spoof. Yun goes to her hometown for a visit and Jiang flees to Taiwan when the Communists come into power. He writes letters but communications are cut.
Forty years later, when he is gravely ill, they meet briefly in a satisfying scene.
As the two theater companies clash onstage, they draw a line down the middle and proceed to rehearse at the same time. Eventually, some of the dialogue and even the props migrate from one play to the other, showing there is much common ground in spite of vastly different performance styles.
It’s too bad that more time is given to the farce than in developing the touching modern story. The farce does have the advantage of introducing American audiences to the ingenious conventions of classical Chinese theater. Joe Wegner, playing an inept stage hand, provides genuine humor when he runs out and desperately corrects mishaps with the traditional props and scenery.