Theater Review: Theatrical Time Machines — Wild Swans and Time of My Life

Both productions play around with chronology in order to show the dark side of history, to unmask convenient illusions of social or personal well-being by juxtaposing the myopia of the past with the payback of the future.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang. Adapted by Alexandra Wood. Directed by Sacha Wares. Set design by Miriam Buether. Presented by the American Repertory Theater, Young Vic, and Actors Touring Company at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through March 11.

Time of My Life by Alan Ayckbourn. Direction and Scenic Design by David J. Miller. Staged by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through March 3.

By Bill Marx

Orion Lee and Katie Leung in WILD SWANS. Photo by Michael J. Lutchin

Time is an essential theatrical plaything that dramatists are free to compact, stretch, and modulate within the reasonable limits of audience patience. The trick is to make at the passing moments—at whatever speed—build toward or away from memorable dramatic revelations. Both productions play around with chronology in order to show the dark side of history, to unmask convenient illusions of social or personal well-being by juxtaposing the myopia of the past with the payback of the future. They also fall prey to the understandable sin of making what’s passed an easy and predictable patsy, a way to ID winners and losers, good guys and bad guys.

Alan Ayckbourn’s amusing, 1992 social satire Time of My Life makes use of time-tripping in order to ironically examine the decline of a wealthy, British family from its delusive high point. An A.R.T world premiere production, Wild Swans takes a more conventional route and earnest route, collapsing June Chang’s memoir of growing up in Maoist era China into a colorful if comic-bookish, 90-minute melodrama that starts in 1948 and ends in 1978. Both approach time for the sake of teaching a heavy-handed lesson, though the Ayckbourn is more successful because it is much less ambitious—the script balances the clownish characterization of the playwright’s early sex comedies without the sex (The Norman Conquests) with his later, much more interesting experiments in curdled farce, such as Private Fears in Public Places, which the Zeitgeist Stage Company staged with panache a couple of years ago.

Set in an overpriced, chi-chi restaurant whose menu is inscrutable, Time of My Life revolves around the 54th birthday party (in 1992) of the steely Laura, the smothering matriarch of the Brixton clan. The shindig breaks apart, its promise of renewal wasted, leading to nasty confessions between Laura and husband Gerry, whose business is in trouble. Amid this domestic turmoil, the play jumps backwards and forwards in time: a series of scenes chronicle the clownish romance between spoiled son Adam and his easily intimidated girlfriend Maureen and go forward to the dissolution of soft-headed son Glyn’s marriage to the manipulated Stephanie. The family’s bourgeois success, which it takes for granted, is lost, with some members thriving in selfish glory, others more adrift than ever.

Ayckbourn likes weighing and fitting his characters with maniacal neatness, and Time of My Life is filled with neat Oedipal figures: the frustrated women are generally in charge, the men hapless appendages desiring motherly approval or hunting for the satisfactions of illicit conquest. The play’s Strindbergian (minor key) vision of the war between men and women is thoroughly jaundiced, though Ayckbourn tries to make a redemptive gesture, unconvincingly, in the empowering transformation of Glyn’s wife. This move doesn’t ring true because Ayckbourn’s characters never change—the sad joke that they just become more miserably themselves as circumstances devolve beyond their wan control.

Gene Dante and Margarita Martinez in TIME OF MY LIFE. Photo: Richard Hall/Silverline Images

To me, Time of My Life feels like a transitional play in the dramatist’s career, built on scripts such as 1987’s A Small Family Business, an earlier study on the intersection between domestic and financial corruption. The sentimental silliness, the lazy chuckles generated by befuddlement that mar his early work, hasn’t been banished, but there are strong glimpses of the tangy sardonic chagrin to come. The Zeitgeist Stage production is very strong, with Maureen Adduci’s pitiless Laura, an honest shark among faint-hearted minnows, a standout, though Michael Steven Costello brings a comradely stealth to Gerry and Evan Sanderson turns Adam into an artsy mama’s boy who has been groomed to kowtow to the point of paralysis. I felt for the character—in one of his careers, Adam edited a magazine dedicated to arts and ideas “that doesn’t make any money.”

Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans is banned in China, but this stage version of the material doesn’t come off as particularly risky venture in the West: it is a fast-moving update of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth without the locusts and the sexual hanky panky. Here the peasants are destroyed by the ideological madness of Mao, a monster who sells a utopian delusion that promises justice, equality, and plenty but only delivers authoritarian horror. Tossing away the clunky machinery of the historical epic, Alexandra Wood’s stage version moves along with nimble dispatch, though there are still awkward spit balls of exposition whenever the audience needs to brought up to speed after years in the story have flown by. The accelerated version of Chang’s challenging life focuses on the experiences of her father and mother, the former a dedicated Maoist whose psychotic allegiance to moral rectitude, even after he realizes his idol is made of bloody clay, would even leave Arthur Miller shaking his head.

The Red Guard parade. Photo by Michael J. Lutch

I have not read Jung Chang’s memoir, but those familiar with the outstanding fiction or non-fiction on the period in Chinese history will not find much fresh insight into China’s collective madness in the stage version. (I recommend Zhang Xianliang’s Grass Soup and My Bodhi Tree, memoirs on his 22 years in Chinese prisons and labor camps.) The well-worn tales of innocence betrayed, social corruption embraced, of obligatory kowtowing to Chairman Mao, fly by with a fierce, graphic comic rhythm, messages hammered home. The bad guys are obvious as are their victims. Flickers of humor and spontaneous glimpses of humanity are difficult to find.

When the play leaves the black-and-white Maoist world, it seems to lose its way—the final scene falls off a cliff. The daughter stands, puzzled, in post-Mao China. We never learn how she escapes or in what way the experience changed her. It is as if the adapter didn’t want to deal with contemporary China. Of course, that would be taking a chance, given that Chinese workers are paid slave wages (and beaten when they try to organize) as they make cheap products for the West, including the iPhones that audiences members have in their pockets. But after this engagement, the production will be part of a cultural festival organized around the 2012 Olympics in London. Aside from unreconstructed Maoists, Wild Swans will leave international feathers unruffled.

The Young Vic and Actors Touring Company performances (and Sacha Wares’s direction) tend toward the emphatic and cartoon-ish, so the production’s visuals make the production’s most memorable impressions, from the images and sounds of a bustling industrializing China to Wang Gongxin’s video of workers in rice paddies, the latter’s grainy intimations of despair hinting at the pain Wild Swans never evokes.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Nicholas on March 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Hmm . . . I did not read the novel. I can only say, the stage play was probably the weakest, most pointless plot I have ever experienced: a pure static, one dimensional plot that any high school student reading a wikipedia summary of the first 30 years of PRC history could have cobbled together on a weekend. I kept waiting for some real plot development.

    There is no question that the staging was very skilled and sophisticated, and perhaps the actors were skilled, but wow . . .Maybe the average, clueless American 35 years ago would have enjoyed this, not knowing much about China and the sickening absurdities that marked Mao’s rule, but the reality is, this is 2012.

    Also, while I was impressed with the staging, I have been to Wagner operas with fewer scene changes. So many scene changes virtually guaranteed an inability to create much of a plot. Minimalist plots are fine in certain contexts, but when the underlying story is so inane, trite, and obvious, there was nothing left to the imagination. Having occasionally attended ART performances over the past 25 years, I was even more shocked that such an outstanding international organization would have produced this drivel. I suppose my reaction was not that atypical either: the applause was brief (and lacked any repeated curtain calls).

    • Bill Marx on March 11, 2012 at 6:36 pm

      Just a note that Wild Swans is based on a memoir, not a novel. I have not read the book, but I gather that liberties were taken …

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