Theater Review: Touchstone 'Dream' a wonderful reality
"Journey: Dream of A Red Pavilion," in its world premiere through April 13, Touchstone Theatre, Bethlehem, tells numerous stories about the Asian experience in the City of Bethlehem: Asian immigrants, Asian adoptees, Asian natives, Asian tourists, and the reactions to them by non-Asians, city officials and college professors.
Storyteller Mary Wright wrote and directed "Dream," based on more than 100 hours of interviews she and the Touchstone team gathered from those who live and work in Bethlehem, Asian tourists along the South Side Greenway and the four lead female actors in the play.
The four women, wearing traditional bright blue Chinese jackets and dresses, tell their stories in monologue, speaking directly to the audience about their life experiences.
Weaving in and out of their narratives, not unlike the Chinese dragons that serpentine around the stage toward the play's conclusion, are Chinese folk tales told by the lead actors and tai-chi movement inspired dance by ensemble players in resplendent green-gold Chinese jackets.
Slow, graceful choreography, evocative lighting and beautifully-delicate Guzheng music recorded by Xiang Xiang He combine to create a dreamlike state, a meditative quality, and thought-provoking entertainment during the one- and one-half hour performance (without intermission).
The centerpiece for "Dream" is the story of the Touchstone Ensemble member and general manager Emma Chong, who comes to symbolize the Chinese puzzle, represented by a large red lantern and sash suspended mid-stage in the set-production design by Jp Jordan and Christopher Shorr, at the core of Wright's superbly specific yet all-encompassing storytelling. Banner art by Hong Tatt Foo adds to the sense of place.
When does "the other," the "otherness," the stranger, the immigrant, become one of U.S./us? Long before hourly busloads of Chinese traveled from New York City to the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, Chinese students first came to study at Lehigh University in 1879.
Chong, who portrays Storyteller 1, dreams her way to China, while exploring her own heritage and sense of self. Her story is personal, touching and fascinating, yet is made universal and understandable to the audience, providing that "red thread" of continuity in the play.
Storyteller 3 is Liana Irvine, a Liberty High School junior where she has appeared in plays, as well as at Pennsylvania Youth Theatre. She beams with energy and earnestness in telling her story as that of an adoptee from China, one that has a happy and fulfilling outcome thanks to a loving family and community.
Storyteller 2 is Dong-Ning Wang, a Beijing, China, native, and doctorate in engineering graduate at Lehigh University, where she teaches Asian studies, language and literature classes. She has a plucky stage presence and brings liveliness to her role.
Storyteller 3 is Qiyi Zhu-Stoffey, a Wuhan, China, native and doctorate in electrical engineering graduate at Lehigh University who works in technology research at AT&T. She has a stoic stage presence and brings an historic perspective to Asian stereotyping and prejudice.
The play's secondary characters, as does a prerecorded soundtrack, bring additional viewpoints: The Official Person (Bill George), The Junior Official Person (Jordan Orth), The Expert (Kyle Lewis), The Do-Gooder (Cathy Restivo), The Innocent (Mallory deForest) and The Ex-Pat Tour Guide (Megan Schadler).
"Journey: Dream of A Red Pavilion" is an uplifting work that should be seen by theater-goers and civic-minded folks. It's a "Dream" that Touchstone Theatre has made a reality.
Note: Paul Willistein was on the seven-member "Journey From The East" Leadership Committee and was one of the more than 55 Story Contributors interviewed for the 2013-'14 "Journey From The East" project.