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Theater review: Blood in the snow

"Snow in Midsummer," at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, adapts a 13-century Chinese classic to show ageless grief in modern times.

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When we are first introduced to Snow in Midsummer in its U.S. premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and to its central character, Dou Yi, there is joy and hope despite tremendous loss. Dou Yi (Jessica Ko) tells us she is a widow, but she seems content with her memories and her simple life of weaving bamboo animals.

After this brief introduction, the play takes a dramatic shift – several years into the future, into a much darker place and time. When we next see Dou Yi, she is greatly changed and much of what follows involves piecing together what has happened to her.

Snow in Midsummer is based on a 13th-century Chinese play by Guan Hanqing, The Injustice to Dou Yi that Moved Heaven and Earth, but playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and director Justin Audibert (who also directed the world premiere for the Royal Shakespeare Company) have set this new version very much in the present.

In Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “Snow in Midsummer,” Dou Yi (Jessica Ko, left) wreaks havoc on a town and its inhabitants, including Handsome Zhang (Daisuke Tsuji) and Tianyun (Amy Kim Waschke). Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

That present is New Harmony, a remote factory town in China, in the middle of a horrible drought. When we first meet the factory workers, the factory where they work is in the process of being sold from its current owner, Handsome Zhang (Daisuke Tsuji), to an ambitious businesswoman, Tianyun (Amy Kim Waschke).

Tianyun and her adopted daughter Fei-Fei (Olivia Pham) have moved to New Harmony looking for a new life with a new business — but it’s unclear how their story, or even Handsome’s, will intersect with Dou Yi’s.

Dou Yi was convicted of a crime she did not commit, and she cursed New Harmony with drought until justice is served. There are timely themes here of environmental destruction, greed, and the abuse of women by men in power — none of which is easily fixed, as we all know.

But there is hope here, still, in the form of women. For it is Tianyun and Fei-Fei who ultimately have the power to make everything right again for Dou Yi. And it is the three incredible actors playing these roles who powerfully bring it all to life for us on the Angus Bowmer Theatre stage.

Jessica Ko is devastating and astonishing as she moves Dou Yi from contented and peaceful to wronged and raging, a “boundless ocean of grief.” Her emotions almost take physical form, and the audience feels them even in the scenes when she doesn’t utter a word.

Kim Waschke’s character Tianyun is a seemingly straight-laced businesswoman and struggling mother, trying to keep it all together as she attempts to have success in a man’s world — literally buying a factory from a man who inherited it from his father. She’s also the portal through which the audience will learn the depths of the mystery as it unfolds.

Fei-Fei (Olivia Pham, left) meets a mysterious friend, Dou Yi (Jessica Ko), in “Snow in Midsummer.” Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Pham, a fourth-grader, gives an unbelievable performance as Fei-Fei, who at first seems like just the sassy daughter to Tianyun. But we soon learn she is a pivotal player here, and that she will help force her mother to face both her own past and that of New Harmony. In doing so, she will help reveal all and attempt to bring justice for Dou Yi.

The rest of the cast is equally up to the task of bringing a Chinese masterpiece to life: Natsuko Ohama gives us two more powerful women characters as the mother who adopted Dou Yi and as Handsome’s childhood caretaker. Tsuji, returning to OSF after acting in other parts of the country, shows audiences who fondly remember his slapstick performances in American Night, Animal Crackers, and King Lear that he’s not playing the Fool here, and this role is no laughing matter. Will Dao brings emotional resonance to his role as Rocket Wu, Handsome’s lover, who just wants to get out of New Harmony. Cristofer Jean gives creepy-good performances as both a doctor and a judge, and James Ryen shows tricky range going from doofus factory worker to Handsome’s father, Master Zhang (in flashbacks).

The scenic design by Laura Jellinek and lighting design by Jane Cox also play pivotal parts in this production coming together as it does: There are incidents that happen on stage that must be tremendously difficult to pull off, involving violence and death, but they work well, in no small part due to the props, set, and lighting.

Snow in Midsummer is not an easy play to watch: There is violence, blood, sexual assault, murder, and overwhelming grief. But, for audience members who can handle this material — which is really not that different than a Shakespearean tragedy — it is well worth seeing. After all, these characters and their stories have endured for centuries by giving audiences a reason not to let them go.

DeAnn Welker is a writer and editor and a lifelong Oregonian (the sixth generation in her family to be born here). She has three daughters who share her passion for the arts, especially TV and theater. As a journalist, she has written or worked for The Oregonian, Oregon ArtsWatch, Television Without Pity (RIP), TODAY.com, MSNBC.com, and the Anchorage Daily News. She also spent a season working in marketing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Now she spends her days working from home as a proposal manager and most of her evenings and weekends driving her kids somewhere. She also volunteers as a Girl Scout leader for her daughters' troops. She lives in Tualatin with her three daughters, her boyfriend, and their smooth collie, Percy. When she's not at the theater, you'll find her reading, watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, or watching TV (usually a reality show like Big Brother or The Challenge or rewatching Friends).

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