When Chen Shi-Zheng was a 4-year-old in China during the Cultural Revolution, he saw his mother shot to death on the street. "This was my first memory," he says. "Since then, beauty and cruelty have lived together, and I've always found duality compelling."`
Life's double edges continued to fascinate Chen when he became a prominent performer of Chinese opera and then after he immigrated to the U.S. in 1987, when he switched to directing for the stage. He says his latest work, "Peach Blossom Fan," which begins a 16-performance run tonight at REDCAT, brims with "wonderful counterpoints" -- like love and betrayal, and false honor and hidden virtue. A modern version of a Ming Dynasty morality play, it has allowed him, he says, to take his "most extravagant step" toward the mix of cultures and genres that has gained him a global reputation for a spectacular blending of East and West.
Chen first won acclaim five years ago at New York's Lincoln Center with an opulent production of the 17th century Chinese literary treasure "The Peony Pavilion." The 19-hour romantic fantasy established him as a creator of onstage magic and a champion of internationalizing Asian art. But he hopes his current suite of three English-language reconceptions of Chinese classics -- "Peach Blossom" is the finale -- will prove he is more than just a skillful ambassador. "I want to go beyond imitating Chinese opera," he says. "I want to create a new kind of actor and vocabulary."
Chen began that mission last year by staging the revenge drama "The Orphan of Zhao" at Lincoln Center and the haunting parable "Snow in June" at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
"Peach Blossom," based on a play about the end of the corrupt Ming Dynasty, was commissioned by CalArts' Center for New Theater. Like the rest of the trilogy, it combines the highly stylized gestures and vocalizations of Chinese opera acting with bold yet elegant staging that in this case attempts to evoke both an evanescent imperial garden and a pop-culture music video (including screen projections, karaoke and a fashion catwalk). Chen likes to use traditional tales to explore contemporary questions. Here, a courtesan who stays true to her exiled lover and her principles "makes you wonder whether you can or should find personal happiness amid public misery and decay," he says.
To Chen, in fact, the storytelling often is more important than the story, and he works in the reverse of the usual stage practice of starting with a script and visualizing it theatrically. "I conceive things like a modern dance. I choreograph the movement, then I lay in the characters, the music, then the text," he says. "Peach Blossom" has a score by indie rocker Stephin Merritt and a libretto by playwright Edward Mast. The designers and actors include CalArts students, faculty and alumni and others -- Chinese and American -- who have worked on Chen's previous shows.
"As a kid, I had incredible dreams," says Chen, 41. "I'd read a ghost story and have these fantasies that were very vivid, as if a film were playing inside my eyes. Later, I would think about how I could stage them. The theater has the power to go deep and capture the human subconscious that way. Somehow I want to penetrate the spectator and make that connection."
Chen is among a wave of Chinese expatriates who are rising to the top of the arts world. Not one who enjoys being labeled, he disputes the idea of a cohesive movement but notes that "we all know each other and have common backgrounds." A number of these artists, including composer Tan Dun and choreographer Shen Wei, come from his home province, Hunan. And many grew up during the brutal era of the Cultural Revolution. Those turbulent times cost Chen not only his mother but also his father, a government official who was sent to a reeducation camp. Shuttled among relatives, the boy befriended the local opera performers who staged public funeral rites -- one of the few forms of creative expression the Communists allowed.
"I saw how artists allowed people to live in two worlds," he says. "They provided relief from reality yet helped people confront the daily pain and danger." A gifted singer, Chen also was drafted to appear in Maoist propaganda pageants. "The funerals made me see the private, human power of art, and the revolutionary shows made me see how art could be used as a tool to influence the masses."