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OSF photo by Jenny Graham
In addition to being plagued by drought and locusts, the people of New Harmony (Ensemble) must deal with death and a funeral in "Snow in Midsummer."

REVIEW: Worlds collide in OSF's 'Snow in Midsummer'

“Snow in Midsummer” is shocking.

I was at first deceived by Dou Yi’s sweet words and lovely weavings. Then I was drawn into the story, caught in the mystery and the superstitions. Finally, I understood and shared the visceral, furious rage of a vengeful ghost. The U.S. premiere of “Snow in Midsummer” opened last week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Snow in Midsummer” was written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, a commission for the Royal Shakespeare Company where the play premiered in 2017. Justin Audibert directed the Royal Shakespeare Company performance, and also the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production.

The play is based on a classical Chinese drama “The Injustice to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth,” written by 13th century Chinese scholar Guan Hanquing.

Cowhig and Audibert worked closely to shape the drama into a contemporary, thoughtful thriller.

The widow Dou Yi is executed for the murder of a powerful man, a crime she did not commit. The widow’s prophesies wreak vengeance on the earth, and her spirit haunts the souls of her rural New Harmony community. The play is magical but way too concrete, a haunting that’s rooted deep in the earth, the stars, rain and snow. The play is yesterday, today and tomorrow. The boundaries between each state are thin and permeable, and sometimes they are absent altogether. These are the divergences, the shifts of time, consciousness and belief that make “Snow in Midsummer” so memorable.

Jessica Ko in the role of Dou Yi is the widow who is falsely accused and executed. Her spirit lives on, restless in torment and colossal in wrath. Ko’s lithe form and bright visage is transformed from an earthly being into a ghost, ghastly and fearful to most who sense her. She moves between the spirit world and this world, and the production alternates timelines, with Ko reflecting confusion, fear and loss as a living being and righteous anger and vengeance as a ghost.

In “The Injustice to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth,” Hanquing sketches Dou E’s father as protector and the one who brings justice. In “Snow in Midsummer,” that plot device is carried out by Tianyum (played by Amy Kim Wasche), a businesswoman who can sense the spirit world, and her daughter Fei-Fei (played by Olivia Pham). These characters and their strong moral roles are new to the classic tale. Cowhig and Audibert use these roles to protest gender inequality in China, devising a theatrical rebuke for the abuse of women in Chinese culture.

Wasche, as wealthy and worldly Tianyum, comes to New Harmony to buy a failing factory. Her careful attention to Fei-Fei keeps her alert, but on the sidelines of the narrative as Tianyum watches and senses that something is wrong. There’s beauty and love in the relationship between mother and daughter, and Wasche plays that ambiguous, questing and confused role well, always open to more.

Fei-Fei is a young warrior girl, a fearless daughter raised with love and latitude who can express herself with a strong voice. It is Fei-Fei who warns of the danger, as those with more modern sensibilities ignore the superstitions that will call forth the hungry ghosts. Despite her young age, Pham is flawless in the performance, whether throwing a kick, flying a kite or channeling a ghost. Pham’s ability to deliver both the childlike play and determined persistence of her role demonstrates a talent and maturity beyond her years.

Technical work for “Snow in Midsummer” is lavish and ghostly, with dragon dancers, massive monsters and snow shining brilliantly. The spirit world and New Harmony collide as projections stream a plague of locusts onto the earth and the sound of dry wings scraping. Screams of death and rage echo and reverberate. The land is devastated by drought and all wear masks as the sands consume the town.

Costuming is brilliant, a mix of traditional and modern garb — the drab green of military corruption, the gray of decomposition, the white of death, and red reflecting joy and life. Laura Jellinek, Helen Huang, Jane Cox and Paul James Prendergast, respectively Scenic, Costume, Lighting and Sound designers, are outstanding.

“Snow in Midsummer” carries the weight of heritage, of old beliefs; customs are heavy, unbearable for some and inescapable. Reckoning is inevitable for the male characters but also for Nurse Wong, played by Natsuko Ohama — these characters are unjust and indifferent to others. Characters who are open to the spirit world will be redeemed. These opposing roles are stock characters constructed by the 13th century Chinese playwright, but it is Cowhig and Audibert who make the play come alive with new narrative that is rich in nuance and contemporary relevance.

In Cowhig and Audibert’s hands, the female roles have strength and integrity. Women have heart. Women have the power to return the rains and restore balance to the world.

“Snow in Midsummer” continues in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 27, with a sign-interpreted performance Sept. 14. There are scenes that depict violence and brutality, including an execution and an attempted rape. For more information and tickets, see www.asfashland.or or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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