By Paul Yee. Directed by Heidi Specht. Coproduced by Pangaea Arts and Theatre at UBC. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Thursday, November 25. Continues until December 4
I’m sure it looked like a good idea on paper. Vancouver-based Pangaea Arts has joined forces with the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy First Troupe to present Jade in the Coal, a play set in Cumberland, B.C., in 1899. Cumberland had a huge Chinatown—in North America, it was second only to San Francisco’s—that housed workers from the local coal mine. It also had two Chinese opera houses where touring companies performed.
Unfortunately, Paul Yee’s script is all over the place, especially in Act 1. It takes forever for the central narrative to emerge: Sally, a Chinese-Canadian woman, has been forced by her father to marry the relatively wealthy store owner Wu Kwun, even though she’s still in love with the dashing gambler Lew Chong. When the Chinese opera troupe arrives in town, its members rehearse Sorrow at Jade Palace, which basically tells Sally and Lew’s story with royal characters.
Playwright and historian Yee is trying to cover so many topics at once—western and Chinese medicine, political unrest in the mine, family relationships, romance—that it’s hard to know where to focus and impossible to care. The characters are slapdash and make unrealistic decisions to accommodate the plot: Lew invests all of his money in a Cuban tobacco plantation, for instance, but is remarkably willing to abandon the project. Although there’s a lot of fuss about the lead opera performer, Evergreen, being possessed by the ghosts of dead miners, we know so little about Evergreen or the miners that a huge amount of stage time goes by without meaningful emotional content. And, when Yee finally tells us about Evergreen’s past, he does so in momentum-killing exposition delivered by another character.
Fortunately, the performers from the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy are a delight to watch, and not only because of the precision and athleticism of their movement. Lihao Yang plays the troupe’s leader with charismatic warmth, Jiading Chen is a scene-stealing clown, Ruqing Wen makes a sensitive Evergreen, and (Wilfred) Peng Mun Aw Yeong, a man who plays the female roles in the company, is a walking lesson in feminine wiles.
Minh Ly, who plays Lew Chong, stands out among the local performers. Ly is an increasingly commanding young actor who brings a welcome simplicity and depth of feeling to this project. Some of the other performances by locals are halting.
Under Heidi Specht’s direction, the evening is conceptually at sea. Stylized movement elements mix awkwardly with naturalistic physicality in the framing story, for instance. And Robert Gardiner’s set design leans too heavily on fuzzy projections.
The evening is underscored by Jin Zhang’s engagingly multitextured original score, which a six-member international ensemble plays on instruments that range from the bowed, two-stringed erhu to the saxophone.
If only the script and production were as successful as the musical collaboration is.