Review: ‘Lady Mu’ a rare opportunity for Hawaii

Feb. 22, 2014 | 1 Comment

REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / jberger@staradvertiser.com

The University of Hawaii at Manoa theater program is unique for its staging of authentic, traditional Jinju (Beijing opera) productions performed in English.

Student actors spend more than six months studying traditional Chinese stage techniques; student musicians undergo similarly rigorous training. The costumes come from China, make up and accessories are equally authentic. It’s as close as Hawaii audiences can get to experiencing Jinju on a local stage.

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‘LADY MU AND THE YANG FAMILY GENERALS’

Presented by the UH-Manoa Dept. of Theatre and Dance

» Where: Kennedy Theatre, UH-Manoa
» When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 2
» Cost: $25 general admission; $22 for seniors, military and UH faculty and staff; $13 for students; $5 for UHM students with valid Spring 2014 ID
» Info: www.etickethawaii.com

“Lady Mu and the Yang Family Generals” lives up to the expectations set by previous productions. Twenty years have passed since Yang family matriarch, She Taijun, and her granddaughter-in-law, Lady Mu Guiying, led the Yang forces to victory after the heroic deaths of most of the Yang men. The Xi Xia Kingdom is once again threatening the Song empire.

If Wang Lun, the boastful son of Imperial Minister Wang Qiang, a powerful enemy of the Yang, is named Supreme Commander of the Song troops, the Wang will control the empire. Imperial Minister Kou Zhun, a friend of the Yang, persuades the Emperor to hold a martial competition instead.

Lady Mu’s teenage children, son Wenguang and daughter Jinhua, win the competition, but the Emperor calls on Lady Mu to come out retirement and take command instead.

As with some previous Kennedy Theatre productions, many roles are double-cast and done so without regard to gender. A female character may be played by a female one night and a male the next, and vice versa.

Fortunately for the public, a few characters are played by the same talented actors in every show. Justin Fragiao is animated and expressive as noble Kou Zhun. Zachary Rhys Loscalzo is an effective comic figure as foolish and boastful Wang Lun. Amanda Stone dominates several scenes as brave but over-confident Wenguang. Keila Ching does show-stopping work as an unnamed Yang general who beats four Xi Xia soldiers single-handed in martial arts combat; Ching caps an outstanding performance by sinking to the stage in a perfect cheerleader’s split.

Other stand-outs from Thursday’s opening night performance will reprise their roles Saturday, Feb. 28 and Mar. 2. Ruby MacDougall (Jinhua) meshes convincingly with Stone throughout; a scene where sister and brother argue about which one should be supreme commander — and why — is particularly engaging.

Devon K. Izumigawa (Gatekeeper) combines agility with comic skills in a lengthy but riveting martial arts scene.

The biggest problem with the show is the multiple casting of Lady Mu. Yining Lin gave a winning performance on opening night. She is delightfully expressive, emotive and enticingly feminine; her commanding stage presence kept Lady Mu from being overshadowed by the colorful and energetic characters of Wanguan and Jinhua.

When Sami L.A. Akuna — a much larger person wearing a completely different costume — takes over the role several scenes after intermission, the natural reaction is to wonder who that giant stranger is and what happened to petite, feminine Lady Mu. It’s an example of casting that works better as an educational opportunity for the students than as public entertainment.

The use of modern anachronisms in an early scene also distracts. When a character suddenly makes a reference to their “okole” (the direct translation of the Hawaiian word is “anus”), or announces “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” it yanks the show out of the Chinese milieu that director Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak and her cast and production team have so painstakingly created.

These distractions are minor flaws compared to the overall quality of the show. Given the strength and vibrancy of the ethnic Chinese community in Honolulu and the number of Chinese social and cultural organizations here, it was both surprising and very disappointing to see Kennedy Theatre barely half-full on opening night. And while Jinju is a product of Chinese culture, Hawaii residents of all ethnicities should welcome the opportunity to sample Jinju in English and see it as well.
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John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at jberger@staradvertiser.com.

  • Henry Mochida

    Great review! I just wanted to note that the Lady Mu shift into Ms. Sami’s casting is intentional in order to stylize the symbolic shift from the strength of a mother to that of a warrior. And as we know, the strength of a woman is not to be trifled with! Thus, “cast” no doubt, the shift should be profoundly noticeable, as a shift only a woman can embody!