Qian Yi in Snow in June(Photo © Richard Feldman)
Qian Yi in Snow in June
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
As one of the country's premier cultural institutions over the past 23 years, the American Repertory Theatre has made more than a few forays into artsy, over-intellectual pretentiousness. At first blush, Snow in June might sound as if it were headed toward that esoteric territory, what with its story line borrowed from a 13th-century Kuan dynasty play, rescripted by classical-collagist playwright Charles Mee, supplemented by Paul Dresher's contemporary American-roots music, and tweaked, choreographed, and directed by Chen Shi-Zheng (internationally acclaimed since the debut of his 20-hour Peony Pavilion cycle at the 1999 Lincoln Center Festival). These rather daunting bona fides don't prepare us for a piece that is at once elemental and sweeping, funny and harrowing, topical and timeless.

The plot is simplicity itself: A young girl (Qian Yi, who also starred in The Peony Pavilion) is sold into servitude to a wealthy elderly widow (the gray and balding David Patrick Kelly, who, true to the conventions of traditional Asian theatre, makes little effort in the way of gender-bending). Married briefly to the woman's sickly son, the girl is soon widowed herself. All is well -- the two care for each other -- until a father/son duo of thugs (Rob Campbell and Thomas Derrah) extort the promise of a double wedding as recompense for saving the old lady's life in the course of an attempted mugging.

The elderly widow, initially averse to the idea, is soon swept up in the giddy throes of late-life romance; a ruthless loan shark herself, she admires the thugs' grifter spirit. Humbly delivered, radiant with hope, Kelly's country-inflected love song ("Who knew I could have a feeling / Like a weakened Darjeeling?") is the comic high point of the show. The second pairing-off doesn't proceed so smoothly, probably because "The Boy" -- played by the fortyish Derrah in a thumbs-up Sluggo stance -- is a shameless, sexist lout. One of the joys (and potential pitfalls) of the repertory system is the opportunity to trace an actor's transformations through a broad range of roles. In his 80-plus A.R.T. appearances to date, Derrah has often indulged in cringe-inducing hamminess; here, constrained by the extreme postural and vocal stylization of the production, he's a delight.

It's Qian Yi who must bridge the disparate worlds of East/West, classical/modern, comedy/drama, and she does so with surpassing finesse. (Her imploring arms alone speak volumes.) Early in the show, it's odd to hear her delicate kunju operatic technique applied to Dresher's homespun ditties; she appears to be singing phonetically and there's a trace of Shirley Temple in her faux-naïve posing. Still, her dreamy rhapsodies about what it would be like to find real love are inescapably touching. In the final quarter-hour of the 90-minute play, when she rises up as a wronged ghost and sings a sequence of centuries-old melodies in her native tongue, she's particularly wonderful.

Swooping as it does from commedia to drama, Snow has to pull off a real high-wire act to bring the audience along. That it succeeds so fully is a tribute to all of the show's elements: the principals and ensemble (graduate students at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training); the production values (the corps members are clad in '50s-style, pastel-plaid casual, courtesy of costumer Anita Yavich, while Yi Li Ming's stage design employs ingenious plexiglass props and tons of plastic snow); and, above all, the quirky collective genius of the creative team. It's as if Chen Shi-Zheng had let us inhabit one of his odder dreams.

This being Cambridge, there are politico-aesthetic subtexts to be deduced here; some might view the production as a comment that the U.S. has been acting like a big bully of late. But whether or not you take home a message, you'll leave Snow awash with indelible images and grateful to have been thus haunted.