Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Huang's play is a structural blend of straight narrative, story-theater, and magical realism, with a TV cooking show parody in the mix. She draws deeply upon her experience as a "hapa," which the play explains is a term used among Asian societies for anyone whose ethnicity is a blend of more than one culture. Through three generations of the Huang family, the Purple Cloud explores the power of culture, the fragmentation that comes from being "hapa," and the void felt when culture is removed from a person's psyche.
We are taken back to Lee Huang's childhood in 1930s China. Lee dreams of being an airplane pilot, but when the Japanese invade and occupy China, he flees to the United States where his ambitions are whittled away. He and his Europeanborn wife settle in Minneapolis, where he provides for his family responsibly but joylessly. Lee raises his son, Orville Wilbur Huang, to embrace American identity, transmitting neither pride nor grounding in Chinese culture. Orville's focus in his life is to fit in.
As a single father, Orville insists his daughter view herself solely as an American, withholding any cultural identity. She is an extremely unhappy 18 year old who is surly, dresses and wears her hair in punk fashion, and constantly confounds her father. The program calls the daughter simply Hapa Girl. She has an American name given by her parents, which she detests. She opts instead for the self-selected moniker "Loco" which further infuriates her father. A mysterious package from aged grandfather Lee sets Hapa Girlagainst her father's strict orderson a trail of discovery. This journey treads on both dreams and reality, and includes the acquisition of a tattoo that connects her to the unfolding mystery. Jade figures included in her grandfather's packagea dragon, a tiger, a tortoise, and a birdare brought to life by an ensemble who also play a variety of other characters and serve as a Greek (or in this case, Chinese) chorus commenting on the action and, as narrators, framing the scenes for the audience.
The entire second act of Purple Cloud is given to Hapa Girl and Orville's journey to China, starting aboard an airplane, where the dim light and droning engine hum creates a dream-like setting for enacting Hapa Girl's hopes, and playing out scenes from Lee's past. Once in China, they face the dual reality of their status as "hapa"eternally outsidersand the richness of their cultural birthright as descendants of China.
Purple Cloud raises more questions about identity, legacy, and community than it is able to answer. Some ideas are launched but never fully developed, including that of the purple cloud, from which the play takes its name, said to unify the members of the Huang familyor is it all a unifying force for all those of Chinese descent? The notion is presented, but never given substance. Similarly, great stock is put in the importance of names, yet Lee counsels Hapa Girl to embrace her western given name, even though it was he who sought a traditional Chinese name for her. The result of such contradictions is confusion rather than illumination. Perhaps that is the intent, and in any case, the questions remain intriguing.
The physical production is quite stunning: a spare stylized set with silken banners seeming to descent from the sky. The stage is transformed through inventive lighting into a wide range of settings. Music and sounds place the story within the context of Chinese experience. The jade figures are costumed in contemporary attire, but a glittering layer within that hints to the mystery beneath their ordinary appearance. The stagecraft continually engages, even when brief lapses in storytelling occur.
Meghan Kreidler gives a powerful performance as Hapa Girl, layering the loneliness of being ungrounded in any culture, feeling there is nowhere she belongs, on top of the more general angst and rebellious spirit of adolescence. Kreidler seems to light up from within when Hapa Girl begins to absorb the wealth of her Chinese heritage. She is imagining herself the host of a cooking show as she actually prepares wonderfully fragrant fried rice, then pivots to convey a sense of betrayal when her father rejects the meal, proclaiming "We eat American food!"
Rich Remedios' portrayal of Orville Huang is as tightly wound as a Swiss watch, so tense that he is likely to explode with anger or sink into despair at any time. It is hard to imagine how he has endured the task of parenting his willful daughter to her 18th year. As Lee Huang, Alex Galick depicts the enthusiasm of his youth, totally charming in the belief he has in his dreams, then conveys the erosion of that spirit bit by bit as the realities of life in the United States for a person of non-European heritage take hold.
The four actors who play the JadesStephanie Bertumen, Kylee Brinkman, Jeannie Lander and Audrey Parkare all equally wonderful in creating a sense of mystery and inner strength within their stone cores, and do fine work taking on a variety of other roles.
Purple Cloud is very much worth seeing for the questions it raises about cultural identity and for the strong performances and exquisite production. Though not fully satisfying in developing its themes, sometimes making jarring jumps in tone, it gratifies the sensesincluding smell and tasteand stimulates both inward reflection and outward conversation about the importance of our origins.
Purple Cloud continues at the Mixed Blood Theatre through December 20, 2015. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $10.00-$20.00. Call 651-789-1013 or go to www.muperformingarts.org.
Writer: Jessica Huang; Director: Randy Reyes; Scenic Designer: Theresa Akers; Costume Designer: Aaron Chvala; Lighting Designer: Barry Browning; Sound Designer: Katharine Horowitz; Props Mistress: Amy Reddy; Stage Manager: Laura Rice
Cast: Stephanie Bertumen (Tiger), Kylee Brinkman (Bird), Alex Galick (Lee Huang), Meghan Kreidler (Hapa Girl), Jeannie Lander (Dragon), Audrey Park (Tortoise), Rich Remedios (Orville Wilbur Huang).