Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig says that she layers multiple avenues of enjoyment and dramatic journeys into her work so that audiences from all walks of life will have something juicy to latch onto and follow.
In “Snow in Midsummer” — a murder-mystery and modern-day ghost story set in China during an annual Ghost Festival — Cowhig weaves a tapestry of revered traditional rituals and terrifying ancient superstitions while targeting the exploitation of women, industrialization, global capitalism and climate change.
After a successful premiere with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2017, “Snow in Midsummer” will debut in the United States.
The show previews at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2, 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3, and 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4, opens at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5, and runs through Oct. 27 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Tickets are available at osfashland.org or by calling the box office, 800-219-8161.
The thriller, directed by Justin Audibert, is based on the classical Chinese drama “The Injustice to Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth,” written by Guan Hanqing in the 13th century. The play was commissioned by RSC in 2016 for the company’s Chinese Translations Project, which has set out to adapt plays by Shakespeare’s Chinese contemporaries.
It’s the story of Dou Yi (played by Jessica Ko). Framed and executed for a murder she did not commit, Dou Yi vows revenge — cursing her city from beyond the grave with a catastrophic drought. Three years later, a wealthy businesswoman visits the parched, locust-plagued city to take over an ailing factory. When her young daughter is tormented by a mysterious apparition seeking vengeance, locals are forced to face a past that no one wants to remember.
Cowhig says the title “Snow in Midsummer” is the alternate title of Hanqing’s version.
“It refers to a prophecy the heroine makes before she’s executed,” she says. “If she is innocent, snow will fall on her body and shield her remains, despite it being the hottest day of the year.”
She chose to make her adaption contemporary because it interested her much more than a “ye olde” vision of China, she says.
The play’s original language was retained but assigned to different characters.
“I also kept the overall trajectory of the ghost-heroine and her focus on the pursuit of justice,” Cowhig says.
“All my plays set in China are about people trying to find meaning and agency amidst landscapes and societies ravaged by global capitalism,” she says. “In ‘Snow in Midsummer,’ the factory town of New Harmony is experiencing devastating drought because of a massive injustice that was done to a poor migrant woman.
“All over the world, we are currently experiencing devastating droughts, floods and fires because of climate change and the cumulative consequences of industrialization and global capitalism.
“The world of the play — parched land, dust storms, particulate masks — is not only onstage, but directly outside as fires across Oregon fill the Rogue Valley with smoke. The resonances are overwhelming.”
Cowhig lived in Asia from age 9 to 18. Her mother was from Taiwan, her father was a U.S. diplomat, and the family bounced around between Beijing, Taipei and Okinawa.
Setting the play against the backdrop of a Ghost Festival — a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held during the seventh month on the Chinese calendar — was fun, she says.
During Ghost Month, it is believed that the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the Earth, where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they died, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off. Rituals are performed to absolve the sufferings of the deceased.
“I grew up around celebrations in both Japan and Taiwan,” Cowhig says. “Because they are full of rules with very specific consequences, I found it fun to use some of them to help structure the world of the play.”
Audibert, who also directed the RSC production of “Snow in Midsummer,” calls the OSF staging a visual feast with falling snow, a dragon dance, giant representations of the Buddhist deities Ox-Head and Horse-Face, and locust swarms.
Cowhig adds that there are lots of incredible fights and movement work from fight choreographer U. Jonathan Toppo and movement director Maija Garcia.
“We also have the wonderful addition of the deaf actor Monique Holt to our OSF cast, who along with our visual gestural communication coach Kalen Feeney, helped us develop a whole new dimension of storytelling,” she says.
In addition to Ko, and Holt, who plays Worker Chen, the cast includes Amy Kim Waschke as Tianyun; Daisuke Tsuji as Handsome Zhang; Will Dao as Rocket Wu; Cristofer Jean as Dr. Lu and Judge Wu; James Ryen as Master Zhang, Worker Huang and People’s Liberation Officer 1; Moses Villarama as Worker Fang, People’s Liberation Officer 2 and Horse-Face; Román Zaragoza as Worker Zhou, People’s Liberation Officer 3 and Ox-Head; Olivia Pham as Fei-fei; and Natsuko Ohama as Mother Cai and Nurse Wong.
With complex characters weaving superstitions and exploring multi-layered societal and political issues, the story is an emotional punch in the gut, Audibert says.
Cowhig says she hopes the momentum of what is a murder-mystery thriller at its core keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.
“Snow in Midsummer” is approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. The play contains violence and brutality including an attempted
rape and an execution. There is also sexual innuendo, bawdiness and profanity.
Tammy Asnicar is a freelance writer living in Grants Pass. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.