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Theater Review: Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden at the Huntington

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Chenxue Luo (opera singer) in Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden at the Huntington

Chenxue Luo (opera singer) in Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden at the Huntington

Photo by Angel Origgi for CalArts

Photo by Angel Origgi for CalArts

Chenxue Luo (opera singer) in Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden at the Huntington

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Though I usually review local productions, Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden at the Huntington in San Marino offered a unique opportunity for an immersive theatrical experience, one that proved aesthetically beautiful and emotionally intriguing.

A collaboration between the CalArts Center for New Performance and the Huntington Library and Garden, Nightwalk is a site-specific play written and directed by Taiwanese playwright Stan Lai. It involves two separate storylines– one set in 16th-century China and the other in 1920s California– that metaphysically converge as love stories.

The two stories unfold as vignettes staged at various locations within the Huntington’s Chinese Garden (or Garden of Flowing Fragrance) that the audience experiences while walking in a circuit.

Limited to 40 each night, the audience is soon divided into two groups, one of which follows a clockwise, or “western,” direction through the garden circuit while the other travels eastward, or counterclockwise.

The eastern path starts with Tang Xianzu’s 16th-century Chinese play, “The Peony Pavilion,” in which a young gentlewoman (Jessika Van) imagines that a writer named Willow (Hao Feng) is writing her life and dreams of their encounter in a springtime garden. Upon waking, she begins wasting away of lovesickness.

That ecstatic day punctuates the maiden’s melancholy domestic confinement and allows some comedy in the form of a radiant flower goddess (Sarahjeen Francois) and her two delightfully bumbling assistants (Kristin Wetenkamp and Abigail Stanton), who have ushered in spring too early, upsetting natural rhythms.

The audience group that starts in the other direction experiences the 1920s-California story first, involving Henry Huntington himself (Adam J. Smith), soon after purchasing Thomas Gainsborough’s painting, The Blue Boy, which is being cleaned by his maid, Fragrance (Christine Lin). Fragrance (Reggie Yip) is also the Chinese gentlewoman’s maid in “The Peony Pavilion” story.
In another overlap of names, Huntington has commissioned an artist named Willow (Peter Mark) to paint a “mate” for Blue Boy. But Willow is enraptured by the resurrected spirit of a young woman, Bella (Lizinke Kruger), who had died of a broken heart after having spent one night with him, which he had thought was a dream.

Bella seems to have been allowed a second life because Willow found her self-portrait near her grave. Similarly, in “The Peony Pavilion” story, the maiden wishes her portrait to be buried in a garden for the writer Willow to find one day (though they have only met in her dream).

These are only some of the parallels between the two stories that enchantingly intertwine characters across centuries, continents and cultures, metaphysically connected by love, art and gardens.

The two stories (and the two audience groups) converge at a midpoint Chinese-opera performance, hosted by Mr. Huntington. The singer (Chenxue Luo) performs the part of “The Peony Pavilion” maiden as she dies of her broken heart.

Each audience group then proceeds forward in the circuit to experience the other story, but in reverse since they are actually moving “backward” along the circle. Thus each group’s experience is slightly different, depending on which story they view moving forward in time and which backward.

A final, candle-lit scene ties all the characters together at a banquet, with a coda of two women on their cellphones, played by Van and Kruger, searching for this performance, as if the heart-aching story has rippled outward to today only as a remote echo of what it was.
The actors, five of whom are CalArts students, are invariably excellent, and especially commendable for performing in the open night air with audience members literally sitting at their feet at different points in the garden. Moreover, they have to repeat their performances, in a different order, for each audience group as they circle the garden.

Costumes (E.B. Brooks) and makeup (Janell Turley) are exquisite, enhancing each character’s grace and beauty, especially the women. The opera singer, along with her costume and makeup artists, comes from the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe.

But it’s the Huntington Chinese Garden at night– with its well-lighted, carved-wood pavilions, bridges, reflective lake, Taihu stones and bonsai trees– that is the real star of this production, in which the actors float like ephemeral ghosts, accompanied by the music of flautist Yin Qian and guitarist Omar Torrez.

Lai has masterfully rooted his haunting story in the landscape and history of this garden, which is both Californian and Chinese, while evoking poetic emotions that transcend time and place.

Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden continues at the Huntington, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, through Oct. 26, daily, except Tuesdays, at 7:30pm. Tickets are $85 to $150. For tickets, call the Huntington at (626) 405-2100 or visit huntington.org/nightwalk. The Huntington offers free admission the first Thursday of each month with a reservation.

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Theater Review: Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden at the Huntington