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February 14, 2007

For the first time, Stan Lai adapts popular Chinese play in English

By Kathleen J. Sullivan

When the curtain opens on Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land next week and the young actors take the stage, playwright and director Stan Lai will be watching from a hidden vantage point, eyes and ears attuned to the reaction of the first audience to hear his popular Chinese play performed in English.

Lai will be hoping for the best—that his 1986 play, which he translated and adapted for this Stanford production, will strike a universal chord that transcends the cultural differences of East and West, of Asia and America, and that his characters will move the audience to laughter as well as tears. Performances are scheduled at 8 p.m. Feb. 22-24 and March 1-3 in Memorial Auditorium. For ticket information, visit the Drama Department website at

In the play, two troupes of actors are mistakenly booked into the same theater for dress rehearsals. One is performing Secret Love, a contemporary drama set in Taiwan about an elderly dying man longing to see his first love. He has not seen her since they were separated in 1949, when the Chinese civil war ended and the Communists took control of the mainland.

The other troupe is performing In Peach Blossom Land, a farce that lampoons the fabled paradise described by a fourth-century Chinese poet, in which a fisherman rows upstream and stumbles into a world where people live in peace and tranquility in a land outside time.

The actors and directors bicker over who needs the rehearsal space more, attack each other's performances and remove one another's props. Eventually they divide the stage in half and rehearse at the same time.

"Through these shared scenes, which on the opening night of the second Beijing run caused laughter so loud it was sometimes hard to hear the actors, the two plays slowly, almost magically, merge as their performers complete each other's lines and common themes emerge," the New York Times reported in a review of a Chinese-language production published Jan. 10.

By the end of the play, when the lovers are reunited after four decades apart, "the laughter gives way to sobs and the audience is left to contemplate the burdens of memory, history, longing and love—and the power of theater itself," the review said.

Lai, a visiting professor at Stanford, adapted Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land for a multicultural student cast—whose surnames include Anchondo, Bassetti, Hallett, Shih and Yong—and a multicultural audience.

"It was not just a question of translation, but of cultural transformation," Lai said recently, while sitting in the café at the Cantor Arts Center.

Dressed in blacks and grays—black glasses, black sweater, gray jeans, his long black hair and wispy black goatee streaked with gray—Lai, who laughs easily and often, was eager to talk about his life, and the challenges and joys of bringing his characters to life in English.

Lai, 52, was born in Washington, D.C., the son of a diplomat, and attended grammar school in the United States. His family moved back to Taiwan when he was 12, after his father became the spokesman for the foreign ministry.

Lai returned to the United States when he was 24. He earned his PhD from the University of California-Berkeley with a thesis titled "Oriental Cross-Currents in Modern Western Theater."

"I feel very much at home in America and Taiwan," he said. "Here in America, I go to ballparks and eat hot dogs. In Taiwan and China, I eat street food in the night markets."

Still, when he returned to California last year, there was one aspect of American culture that was new to Lai—the need to be mindful of ethnic and racial stereotypes.

"I've been away for more than 20 years since getting my doctorate in 1983," said Lai, who is considered one of the most influential playwrights and directors in Asia. "I'm less sensitive to what may spark a controversy in America. Those issues are fascinating to me."

One of those fascinating issues came up when Lai said he wanted one of his female characters—Yuin of the Secret Love cast—to wear a black wig with pigtails.

"Are you sure?" Lai recalls his Japanese costume designer asking him. "That might spark a protest or uncomfortable feelings."

After some discussion, Lai decided to keep the wig, but to change the color to brown. He is confident that the audience will see Yuin as a fully drawn character, not as a stereotype.

"And during the play, we acknowledge it's a wig," he added.

Lai, who has written and directed 27 original plays, added dialogue to address—in a humorous way—the fact that some of the Chinese characters are played by white actors. He also added lines about the 2 million people who fled China in 1949. Lai's parents were part of that mass exodus. They fled to Taiwan, where they married.

Lai also added dialogue about the Peach Blossom Land of the title; in China, Taiwan and Singapore, the phrase means the land of one's desires and aspirations.

"Shouldn't we be giving the audience some heavy background on A Chronicle of the Peach Blossom Spring by the fourth-century poet Tao Juan-ming?" one character says.

"We've deconstructed it, so who cares," another replies.

Lai said the performances at Stanford will be a test of the transcultural appeal of the play. If it "passes," he'll make the same wish he makes for all performances of his plays.

"Each individual work has a life and fate of its own," he said. "So all I do is make a deep wish that this work may be of benefit to whoever comes to see it, as well as to all who are involved in the production of it."



Kathleen J. Sullivan, News Service: (650) 724-5708,


Katie Pfeiffer, Drama Department: (650) 723-1342,


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