Red Snow

RED SNOW by Diana Tso, directed by Beatriz Pizano (Red Snow Collective/Toronto ALPHA/Aluna Theatre). Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Runs.

RED SNOW by Diana Tso, directed by Beatriz Pizano (Red Snow Collective/Toronto ALPHA/Aluna Theatre). Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Runs to January 28, Monday-Saturday 7:30 pm, mats Wednesday and Saturday 2 pm. $30, Saturday mat pwyc. 416-504-7529. See listing. Rating: NNN

Red Snow illuminates a little-known holocaust of the 20th century using poetry, calligraphy, Chinese opera and passion. The result is a graceful, moving production but one that sometimes needs a more developed narrative.

The 1937 rape of Nanking (now Nanjing) saw the deaths of some 300,000 Chinese at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Rarely discussed in the West, the massacre still has its deniers.

Diana Tso’s play sets up a three-generation tale. Gung Gung (Richard Tse) flees Nanking with his young daughter, Lily (Janet Lo), after his wife, Popo (Vienna Hehir), dies brutally. They settle in Canada, the rigidly anti-Japanese Gung Gung refusing to discuss the war’s horrors.

Six decades later his granddaughter, Isabel (Zoe Doyle), troubled by nightmares of her grandmother, travels to Nanking to search for the truth behind Popo’s death. Things become awkward when she meets and becomes involved with Jason (Derek Kwan), who is Japanese Canadian. The difficult meeting between Jason and Gung Gung leads to the revelation of other family secrets.

The strong production, sympathetically directed by Beatriz Pizano, never loses sight of the story’s emotions, even in its design elements. Set designer Trevor Schwellnus’s surtitled Chinese projections bring an added bonus: the calligraphy provides not only translated text but also elegant visuals. Victoria Wallace’s costumes and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting echo that stylishness.

Then there’s Alice Ping Yee Ho’s score, played by Patty Chan and percussionist Brandon Miguel Valdivia. With its touches of Chinese opera and simple folk song, the soundscape amplifies the show’s atmosphere and gives prominence to The Peony Pavilion, a classic Chinese stage work that Tso weaves into her narrative. Popo and Gung Gung’s love is intimately tied to that opera, though part of Red Snow’s pathos is that Popo is largely voiceless.

In the person of Hehir, she’s a wonderful dancer, expressive in performing William Yong’s sometimes sensual, sometimes ethereal choreography. While there’s a classical feel to Popo’s dancing, Yong gives a contemporary quality to Isabel and Jason’s pas de deux. Another strong movement scene involves origami cranes, memorials and messengers between heaven and earth Jason and Isabel make them with their bodies rather than sheets of paper.

But in a production that lasts only about an hour, there’s lots of story and character development that needs expansion. We understand that Isabel has been taught the importance of loyalty, honesty and justice, but we don’t know much about her personally her relationship with Derek doesn’t develop but suddenly appears full-grown. Some preparation for Gung Gung’s attitude toward the Japanese would also enrich the climactic confrontation.

Even so, both the poetic script and the impressive production are full of heart. They start the process of healing by beginning a discussion that leads to forgiveness.

Read an interview with Red Snow writer Diana Tso here.

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