Butterflies and Tigers

Written and directed by John Glines
Trilogy Theatre
341 W. 44th St. (330-7200)
Non-union production (closes Feb. 22)
Review by Marshall Yaeger

Perhaps the most awful thing about the decade 1966-76 in China was that the Asian cultural tendency to conceal emotion probably impeded the realization, in the West, of the enormity and psychological brutality piled on the Chinese people by Mao Zedong's revolutionaries. At least we know what Hitler did; but Mao caused more people to die than anyone in history. How many know about the peculiar nature of the suffering: how many families and human beings were broken on the wheels of a terrible idea?

But here it all was: the appalling rape of China by Mao's culture vandals; the vile Red Guard and Red Brigades; the famine; the reign of the Red Terror; the dunce caps paraded in the streets; the "Gang of Four"; the "Great Leap Forward"; the closing of the schools, creating a generation of illiterates; the Little Red Book dripping with blood; and the songs, marches, and pageantry passionately executed by the ensemble cast, for whom this play must have meant a great deal.

But the play wasn't just one damn thing after another. It was peppered with the true lamentations of real folks, mostly suffering in patient silence.

Here were heartbreaking, absurd tales of the scholar who threw himself on the bonfire of his 3000 books; or the history teacher sentenced to hard labor for refusing to criticize the Party during the Blooming of the 100 Flowers. Assigned to ladling human waste, he was punished for improving the ladle. Finally rehabilitated, he was offered his old job back on condition he resign immediately.

The author-director, the eponymous, award-winning producer of the illustrious "The Glines," basing his script on One Hundred People's Ten Years by Feng Jicai, managed to catch both the humanity and the gallows humor from these hopeless situations. Borrowing economically from every appropriate source, including Chinese opera, he conveyed the excitement of revolution while making point after wrenching point of its tragic results.

With a Brechtian sweep through an epic suffering, much of the acting was declamatory-almost agitprop. Nevertheless Gene Chen, Darcy Chin, Ann Hu, Douglas Kim, Frances Lee, Keong Sim, and Edward Wong wiped real tears in the face of tragic love and death; or screamed till it terrified; or burst with outrage at injustice. By the end, many in the audience wept too at the poignant stories. It was a privilege to be in the presence of such nobility.

Andris Krumkalns built the stark set, and Tracy Dedrickson lighted it. Much clever use was made of red scarves; and Thomas Hasselwander enhanced things with music and sounds of chopsticks, gongs, and bells.

The play ended with the conviction that the oldest culture on earth-a people "who can find jade in a dunghill"-will endure.


Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2
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Copyright 1998 Marshall Yaeger