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'Nightwalk In The Chinese Garden' Brings Theater To The Huntington At Night

The Garden of Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington (Photo by Martha Benedict)
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By Jonathan Shifflett with Marialexa Kavanaugh

Stan Lai is a playwright, known as the father of modern Taiwanese theater. His new play, Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden, has taken him through uncharted creative terrain. For starters, it's his first English-language production. It's also site-specific, taking place in the Chinese Botanical Garden at the Huntington Library.

Lai staged the production throughout the garden, placing different scenes in its pagodas and pavilions. When we spoke to him, he was enthusiastic about breaking the confines of the traditional audience/performer dynamic.

"I just love not being limited to any concept of what theater is," Lai said.

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Stan Lai

For viewers, the garden's a transportational device.

"I haven't really seen a garden like this in China. And I've been in many of them," Lai said. "Many of the gardens in China, they're more house-oriented. There's lots of buildings, lots of architecture. This garden is a big lake, and there's small pavilions around it. It has its own special peace."

The renowned garden isn't typically open to the public past 5 p.m., meaning Nightwalk viewers are privy to some late-night Huntington magic. The play's an experiment for both the library and Lai.

Jessika Van as The Maiden, daughter of a wealthy Ming Dynasty merchant family.
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The story is partly based on a famous 16-century Chinese text, the Peony Pavilion. Lai had to be diligent about condensing his adaptation -- the original play used to take days to perform.

"It's ... almost an exact contemporary of Shakespeare. He wrote this incredible play that takes about 10 days to perform," Lai said. "We've extracted the story itself, which is about a maiden who falls in love with a man in her dream. After she wakes up, she pines -- and then after a few months, dies of that love."

Lai's life has been split between the U.S. and Taiwan, with significantly more time spent in the latter. He comes to the U.S. as an observer, but also feels a sense of engagement in American history and politics. His lifelong dance between eastern and western art was key in the development of his new play.

"The story being retold in California. Me being in Los Angeles and working with actors from America. I think that had a big influence in the way I'm writing this," Lai said. "And I think at this point in my career it's time to be a bridge between East and West. Very seldom do we perform in America, and now in English. I think of the themes of a very mystical Chinese story being told in two ways."

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.

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While half of the narrative is based on the Peony Pavilion, the other half takes place in 1920s California. It's here that things get a bit meta in the character department.

"Among the cast of characters is Mr. Huntington," Lai said. "In the Huntington estate in the 1920s, there is a performance of the Peony Pavilion by Chinese actors from China."

Mr. Huntington, the library's namesake, would be considered pretty problematic by most modern thinkers. An elite businessman made wealthy through his investments in Western railroads, Huntington oversaw the hiring and exploitation of many immigrant workers -- many of which died on the job. Lai felt it was important to include details that helped illustrate the darker sides of Mr. Huntington's character.

Chenxue Luoof theShanghai Kunqu Troupe, performing the role of The Opera Singer

"I have one character whose name is 'Fragrance,' which is the name of a character in the Peony Pavilion," Lai said. "And she is called on to clean the paintings. Because Mr. Huntington really likes the way she cleans paintings. So I'm subtly dealing with these issues in a way that I hope will generate discussion."

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The audience will either be walking clockwise or counterclockwise around the Chinese garden's lake. If you go clockwise, you'll experience the Chinese scenes first, and witness the Western scenes in an inverse order. If you walk the opposite direction, the Chinese scenes will be inverted. Lai wanted to give audience members different chronological experiences, symbolically blending the two cultures.

"The more I worked, the more I worked into my own interests in what it means to be Eastern and what it means to be Western," Lai said.

Nightwalk will be at the Huntington through Oct. 26, every night from 7:30-9 p.m.

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