Wild Swans at the ART: Parodying Propaganda with a Little Tragedy

by Bryce Lambert on February 28, 2012

The reviews agree that while the A.R.T.’s production of Wild Swans is a visual triumph of theatrical design, it comes off two dimensional; with a lack of character development and stale acting. Its tableaux shine, but the general plotting is humdrum–a quality that would have probably proven fatal if it weren’t for Wild Swans’ historical context of China’s Cultural Revolution. I haven’t read Jung Chang’s memoir (which Alexandra Wood adapted from 500 pages into this relatively short play), but it seems that this adaptation, directed by Sacha Wares, discards the epicness that’s probably crucial to the novel. Choosing instead to deliver a production of which vast sections are occupied not by efficient characterization and narrative, but by lengthy set changes (tediously removing a bamboo matting backdrop and emptying and then clearing at least six wheel-barrels worth of soil from the stage), an elaborate Red Guard pageant, and video montages depicting the modernization of the Chinese economy.

What does that leave us with? I can’t help but see Wild Swans as a satire of a Chinese propaganda play (which you may have seen, in ballet form, in the recent film Mao’s Last Dancer). All the ingredients of a propaganda play are there; a party sanctioned romance, a landowner toiling in his fields with peasants following the Civil War, flat characters, lessons in Maoist principles, and giant paper-mache vegetables symbolizing the agricultural bounty of the People’s Republic.

And everything for comic satire too. Two Red Guard members humorously court each other while working in a field, matter-of-factly divulging their sexual histories, the guy asking a girl for permission to write the party for permission to pursue a relationship. A meeting of Red Guards performing obligatory self-reflection begins with banter that’s borderline sitcom and ends with a mother being sent away for interrogation, her husband not even resisting it. There’s so much communist cant, that the actors couldn’t deliver their lines without them sounding like propaganda–so they have to be a little flat and satirical.

wild swans play

Another comic scene, where bringing your daughter and her doctor soup is wrong under Chinese communism. Notice the great mural! (Michael J. Lutch)

wild swans video

Probably the most striking video projection (Michael J. Lutch)

But of course, aside from a few comic scenes, it’s not straight-up satire. That would be far too much of an intellectual exercise for the Paulus A.R.T. And Chang’s novel, which is still banned in China, wouldn’t make very good source material for it anyways. Instead, Wild Swans takes on a satirical framework, but commits itself to a plot–a tragic dramatic reality–that’s ultimately and explicitly critical of Maoist social and economic reforms.

This plot is centered around a family that begins in the idealistic early years of the People’s Republic and ends up persecuted and separated into different communes, as Mao’s communism is slowly corrupted. The father’s resolute faith in the communist doctrine that once moved him to join the Red Guard is largely to blame for this, as he refuses to resign his idealism to the two-faced politicking that might have kept his family in a better standing through the 1960s and 70s. Even in the final moment of the play, set in the late 1970s after Mao’s death, he’s unwilling to ask a favor to give his daughter a leg up in a system he knows to be already corrupted by nepotism. Wild Swans basically inverts the communist propaganda play, letting its social ideals be corrupted, and befalling those who remain un-corrupted with tragedy rather than reward.

Enough can’t be said about the production’s excellent design. Farm tools and costumes made in China (in a good way) lend a visual realism that I wish more shows would strive for. The projections are stunning, but also wonderfully practical in their simple metaphor for Mao’s death: buses, ostensibly moving people around the county as they’re released from the communes. If only for its unique visuals and their scale, Wild Swans isn’t to be missed.

Wild Swans runs through March 11th at the A.R.T. Tickets about $50-60.

wild swans chang

A little bit of a cultural sampler (Michael J. Lutch)

wild swans art

(Michael J. Lutch)

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