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Stage Review : A Hard-to-scale 'Great Wall'


"The Great Wall, or How Red Is My China," which played the Powerhouse last week and moves to L.A.C.E Gallery on Wednesday (and the Cast Theatre Sept. 3), is a performance art piece conceived by May Sun and based in part on her return to Shanghai, where she was born and where she rejoined her aunt, a functionary (we are told) in Mao Tse-tung's Communist revolution.

The piece is short and visually rather elegant (Sun is also a painter, sculptor and graphic artist). A midnight-blue velvet armchair--one of those strict-looking post-Victorian easy chairs, appointed with doilies, in which Chinese officials sit chatting and sipping tea--takes up center stage.

Its image is duplicated in two large slide projections overhead, left and right. At the beginning we see motion picture projections of the Great Wall in a center panel and shots of Mao-jacketed Chinese going about their business. The mountains shown are not the traditional foggy redoubts of Chinese mystical thought, but crowded, rugged ranges, darkly lichenous. A portrait of an androgynous-looking Mao, beside the painting of a snub-nosed animal, maybe a dog, hovers over everything.

May Sun, a slender, attractive woman in her mid-30s, sits in the chair, dressed in the dark slacks and jacket of contemporary Chinese. Her voice is miked. Her tale begins, "This is complicated. . . . "

Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 27, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 3 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Ken Foree plays Paul Robeson and Jack Slater plays Douglas MacArthur in May Sun's "The Great Wall, or How Red Is My China," which continues through Sunday at the LACE Gallery, 1804 Industrial St., Los Angeles, (213) 462-9872. In a review in Monday's Calendar, the roles were erroneously reversed.

Abstruse would be a better word for what unfolds in the 45 minutes or so that "The Great Wall" plays itself out. Its visual and aural properties (Tom Recchion supplies the moody, portentous synthesizer music) have no complement in her text. Sun's story has relatively little to do with the details of her aunt's life and political career (and says nothing of their relationship, or of the psychological reflections upon returning to one's birthplace). Instead, "The Great Wall" uses the pretext of the visit to give us a summary of Chinese political history from the '30s on. The history is highly polemical, and alas, very spotty.

The figure of Douglas MacArthur (Ken Foree) stands stage right, fulminating in the fire-and-brimstone tradition of American imperialism. Paul Robeson (Jack Slater) stands stage left (both are behind scrims), discussing the actions that led to his internal exile in America. There's a very rare, wonderful piece of real TV footage included, incidentally, where Robeson, with his magnificent voice, sings the Chinese national anthem--in Chinese.

Though it's not spelled out, an insight can be reached into Robeson's flirtation with communism, whose ideology of classlessness had to appeal to a proud and gifted man embittered by racism.

There isn't much to his character here, however, and there's less to MacArthur, depicted as a loudmouthed militaristic poseur. As for China, Sun offers some dates and events and the kind of sweeping summary characteristic of grade-school texts. The modern China she tells us about, once wrested from the genocidal grip of Chiang Kai-shek, is beleaguered by warring neighbors and ostracized by the West. But no note is delivered on Mao's cultural imperialism, in which China's intellectual and artistic class was decimated and its enforced communal society pushed into a Great Leap Forward that didn't get very far.

The avant-garde always has hidden terms of self-fulfillment (its excitement is in part finding out what they are). What "The Great Wall" needs is penetrating, coherent argument. What it delivers is overheard opinions, worn-smooth slogans whose emotional charge has been left at home in a distant country.

Guy Giarrizzo directs with a keen understanding of the economy of movement.

"The Great Wall" is part of a series called "Roadshows," which includes Donald Krieger's "The Lost Continent" and Jan Munroe's "Alligator Tails/Diner?" Each play will make the rounds among the Powerhouse, L.A.C.E. and the Cast. Information: (213) 462-0265.

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