The Huntington’s Chinese Garden, or Liu Fang Yuan (Garden of Flowing Fragrance), is the atmospheric setting for Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden, a new play by Stan Lai running through Oct. 26. Festival director of the wildly popular Wuzhen Theatre Festival staged every October in the picturesque town of Wuzhen, China, Lai takes on the occasional special project — two years ago he directed The Dream of the Red Chamber for the San Francisco Opera. That same year the acclaimed Washington, D.C.–born playwright was commissioned by the CalArts Center for New Performance and the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens to create a new play for the Chinese Garden, which would be staged around its man-made lake. Audience members would witness scenes as they unfolded in the various pavilions, terraces and bridges.
“The opportunity to do something like this is very rare,” says Lai, enjoying a moment of respite between rehearsals on the terrace of the garden tea house, dubbed Terrace That Invites the Mountains. A soft breeze is blowing across the lake, which is lined with gnarly Taihu rocks from China, and temperatures are beginning to cool. “To do a site-specific, immersive project that is real theater, not just an installation or something, this is a different thing. It’s storytelling that occurs through a garden.”
Each night’s intimate audience of 40 gathers first at the tea house, formally called the Hall of the Jade Camellia, then splits into two groups to watch various scenes being performed on the east and west sides of the lake. Both groups will see the same scenes, but in a different order.
The inspiration for Nightwalk came to Lai when he toured this garden three years ago. He shared his idea with Travis Preston, dean of the CalArts School of Theater, who’d wanted to do a project with him through their Center for New Performance. “We’re not really looking for plays, we’re looking for artists we want to work with,” Preston says in a phone interview. “Stan’s a writer and director at the same time. He’s devising the work as he’s rehearsing it; that’s very consistent with the kind of experimentation we’re interested in. There’s also a lyricism in Stan’s work I find very moving.”
Lai, who shuttles between Taiwan and China, conducted a workshop in 2016 with prospective actors and participants at CalArts and the Chinese Garden. His idea was to weave together two stories: one involving Henry Huntington, the railroad magnate whose collections and estate make up the core of The Huntington, and the other, the Chinese opera classic The Peony Pavilion.
The Peony Pavilion is a tragicomedy written by Tang Xianzu in 1598 — the original play ran for 55 scenes and took over 20 hours to perform. (Nightwalk runs about 90 minutes.) In it a young maiden, Du Liniang, enters a garden where she dreams of a handsome scholar, Liu Mengmei, and tumbles head over heels in love with him. She falls so deeply that when she awakens, she wastes away pining for him. Later, this same scholar visits her garden and has a dream about her. In the dream he’s encouraged to find her grave and exhume her body — which he does, and she miraculously comes back to life, uncorrupted.
“It’s one of the most famous Chinese plays, but not well known outside of China,” says Lai in his deep, measured voice. “It’s so steeped in the tradition that I’m very interested in and write about myself a lot, which is the reality of dreams, the reality of art, also my own interest in the creative process itself — these are the things that are blending together in the garden here.” In his play, the playwright becomes part of the story. “He’s in the midst of writing The Peony Pavilion,” says Lai, and Du Liniang becomes his imagined heroine and muse. “Du Liniang is trying to teach him how to write.”
The Western part of the story takes place in the early 1920s, when Henry Huntington acquires the Thomas Gainsborough painting, The Blue Boy, today a pride and joy of the Huntington art collection and the subject of a concurrent exhibition (see page 15). His curator also introduces him to Chinese opera, via an excerpt from The Peony Pavilion, which is performed in Nightwalk on a rotating basis by two stars of the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe. After our interview, Lai invites me to stay for the rehearsal and the kunqu performance. This takes place late in the evening, in the Clear and Transcendent pavilion, which has been equipped with seats — and the audience becomes Henry Huntington’s guests. As Du Liniang, Luo Chenxue comes from stage right, prostrate with grief and pining for her dream lover, while sending her regrets to her mother. Almost collapsing, Luo begins her plaintive aria, her eyes bright with tears — without even understanding the words, the performance is literally a showstopper. Everyone stops what they’re doing — actors, tech crew, guests — and listens. It’s a heartrending, deeply convincing performance, despite the fact that Luo is not dressed for the part, instead clad in a T-shirt and jeans.
Most of the other actors are CalArts students and alumni — Reggie Yip, a CalArts graduate, as the Chinese maid, and Hao Feng, a current CalArts MFA student, as the Playwright — the play’s protagonist. Two years ago Yip was in the workshop Lai held in preparation for the production. While most of the play is in English, both point to specific Chinese cultural elements reflected in the script. “If you listen to the language, the way the language flows, there’s a cadence,” says Yip, who was born and raised in Hong Kong. That’s also the case with certain themes: “I’m on the East side of the piece, and there’s a lot of conversation about gender roles, this hierarchy of family that’s very Chinese.” “Filial piety,” adds Feng.
During rehearsals Lai is remarkably low-key. He speaks calmly, but with authority. Asked about his directorial style, he says, “Why do you want to scare people? You want to encourage people. That’s the basis of my method — to let people profoundly understand who the character is, because maybe I don’t even know who the character is when I’m creating it. It’s not like this is Hamlet or an already created character. This is something that I’m working on together with my actor, exploring a character.”
And the Chinese Garden’s uniqueness makes it the perfect setting for that character, Lai says. “I’ve been in many gardens in China, in Suzhou in particular,” he says. “The beauty of the Chinese garden always has to do with classical poetry or classical literature. You know, the scenic spots always need a story or a reference.” That’s certainly true of The Chinese Garden — every scenic point has a poetic name — and serendipitously enough, The Huntington has just announced the final phase of its construction. “It’s all about order: In a way it’s a little strange, in another way it’s exquisite.”
Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden, written and directed by Stan Lai, is performed at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday through Oct. 26 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Ticket prices range from $85 to $150, depending on day and membership status. The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino. Visit huntington.org.