Incident at Hidden Temple
Damon Chua's latest stage noir play blurs the line between fact and fiction.
In an atmosphere of deception, hostile foreign powers create propaganda designed to sow doubt and demoralize Americans. That's certainly true today, but it was also true in 1943, the year in which Damon Chua sets his newest play, Incident at Hidden Temple, now making its world premiere with Pan Asian Repertory at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre. A historical fiction set in World War II China, the piece has the potential to use the lessons of the past to illuminate the present — an objective never fully realized in this half-hearted attempt at noir.
Ava (Ying Ying Li) and Lucy Chao (Briana Sakamoto) are American sisters traveling in wartime China. Ava is a journalism student at Yingnan University. She meets Walter Hu (Tim Liu), a pilot in the Flying Tigers (an American volunteer group of the Chinese Air Force). They also encounter a puckish blind peasant (Dinh James Doan) who tells them of a hidden temple that can only be seen by the pure of heart. When Lucy goes missing, Ava seeks the help of Flying Tigers commander Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles). Van Holt and his secretary, Jing (Rosanne Ma), are already busy dealing with the murder of O'Grady (Nick Jordan), an American soldier who was stabbed near the hidden temple. While Van Holt is not able to immediately find Lucy, he is able to get Ava an exclusive interview with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek (also Doan). Subterfuge abounds in the form of Communist treachery, clandestine love affairs, false identities, and a priceless Buddha statue.
In classic noir style, the first thing we witness is O'Grady's murder. While lighting designer Pamela Kupper valiantly attempts to shroud this killing in darkness, we know exactly who the assailant is the moment she reappears later in the story (her shifty eyes and suspicious behavior tip us off to the fact that the actor is definitely not double-cast). That mystery thoroughly demystified, Chua attempts to keep the audience engaged by continually opening new story lines, each with a diminishing return.
There are things that the camera does better than the stage (and vice versa), something that Chua and director Kaipo Schwab must have discovered during their last collaboration, Film Chinois, which was also an attempt at stage noir. In absence of having the benefit of the camera's close focus, we get a mostly unfocused script that offers only glimmers of genuine intrigue.
One of those moments comes when Jing is found listening to a broadcast by Japanese radio propagandist Tokyo Rose (the simultaneously sexy and mocking voice of Briana Sakamoto). She paints an auditory picture of invincible Japanese soldiers and feigns sympathy for the poor GIs who will die serving uncaring masters in Washington. Even if we completely disagree with the premise of her broadcast, we recognize the kernel of truth on which it is based.
Incident at Hidden Temple touches on issues of truth, fabrication, and the porous line between journalism and propaganda — all incredibly relevant today. Unfortunately, Chua never uses this platform to deepen our engagement with these themes. Instead, what we get is knockoff Nancy Drew meets Indiana Jones: a suspense-free murder mystery that transforms into an inexplicable treasure hunt.
To his credit, director Schwab faithfully stages the misguided script, incorporating cinematic elements into the design. Sheryl Liu's set of imposing stone slabs allows for multiple playing spaces and keeps unveiling its secrets until the end. Kupper delivers iconic noir lighting, complete with the genre's signature thin strips of light penetrating window blinds. Ian Wehrle's heavy-handed, pulse-raising sound design makes us wonder if we'll find Lara Croft in the hidden temple, a not implausible development in this grab-bag of a script.
The actors do their best to fit into this world, but it feels like they're on the set of a soap opera, always conscious of the camera. Doan delivers the vast majority of his lines facing the audience, but to be fair, his character is blind. The other performers don't have this excuse. Li's physicality and line readings are particularly forced, making us wonder if she's really playing the role of someone playing a role (poorly) who will only reveal her true identity at the end. Sadly, that moment never comes.
A combination of wooden acting and an aimless script make Incident at Hidden Temple an unmemorable night at the theater. This is a shame because this subject and historical era teem with untapped drama. There is a great play in here, but it is mummified in a cinematic form unsuited for the stage.