KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 18, 1994
Political monsters come in all shapes and sizes. They may be given to hype and histrionics, or they may be smooth, smarmy and insidious, in which case, they are even more dangerous. Two of the unctuous variety have oozed their way onto San Diego stages. At the Cassius Carter, we meet Jiang Qing, the widow of Mao Zedong, in a one-hour, one-woman retrospective, “Madame Mao’s Memories.”
It’s oddly fitting that the story should be a play and showing now. Madame Mao, imprisoned since the death of her husband in 1976, committed suicide exactly three years ago this week. And this is the perfect vehicle for her monstrous tale, because she started as an actress, and always craved the spotlight. In fact, as architect of China’s Cultural Revolution, her so-called “purification of the arts,” she became, in her onstage words, “no longer merely a player. I orchestrated,” she says defiantly, “I write the script and I am the director.”
Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely. And power was what drove Madame Mao. Just as it drove Evita Peron, whose story became trivialized in musical form. Here, Los Angeles playwright Henry Ong has more carefully drawn a multi-dimensional character. She presents and defends herself in her own words, which incriminates her more than any prosecutor could. But the result is more information than entertainment; more history lesson than theatrical experience. We see re-enactments of the appalling details of Madame Mao’s early life — the poverty and ridicule, the beating by her father, the binding of her feet by her mother, her rape by an employer, sleeping her way into the theater, the Party, the Presidency. But we feel disturbingly distant from it all. We may begin to understand her motivations, but we remain unmoved.
There may be little no emotional engagement, but we are constantly cognizant of the incredible skill of the actress in conveying this gorgon who is accused of murdering or persecuting a hundred thousand of her countrymen. Kim Miyori is astonishing, moving with enormous grace and fluidity, her hands doing their own dainty dances. She is in turn aggressive, defiant, flirtatious, persuasive. But never contrite. As an actress she is beautiful, though her character is ugly. She is extremely well directed, and backed by a stunning technical team.
“Madame Mao” helps us interpret a painful past in a distant country, but at the Fritz Theatre, we get a more terrifying picture of a grisly present, which could be anywhere, any time. “One For the Road,” a 1984 one-act by Harold Pinter, is about victimizers and victims, the torture of a middle class family accused of being political dissidents, one little threesome on the receiving end of decrees by the likes of Madame Mao. We get a disturbing look at the interrogator, a well-mannered thug, charmlessly polite and vicious to the core. This avuncular menace, menacingly played by Bob Larsen, is a ghastly universal, a man who invokes God to justify even his most horrific acts. Anything to protect the realm. It vaguely reminded me of another recent Fritz production, Irene Fornes’ “The Conduct of Life,” where a dictatorship in one household parallels the totalitarianism outside.
There’s another kind of power play operating in the one-act paired with “One for the Road” — another little Pinter masterpiece, “The Lover.” Taking comic turns on a serious subject, the play concerns adultery, reminding us of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” where the cynical Algernon says, “…in married life, three is company, two is none.” In the marriage of Richard and Sarah, she has a love, he has a whore, and they discuss the matter freely.
In this clever pas de deux, this delicate dance of role and relationship, marital harmony and sexual titillation, Ron Choularton is exceptional and, except for her on-and-off semi-accent and not-quite-believable sensuality, Gayle Feldman takes him on masterfully. Brian Bevell’s direction is hair-trigger timed, and the two plays comprise an evening that’s highly disturbing but deliciously thought-provoking.
When it’s all about power, the theater can be very powerful.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.