Review: Red Snow (Red Snow Collective)

Vienna Hehir and  Richard Tse in Red Snow

When I first learned of the play Red Snow, now onstage at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, I was full of emotions.

At first I was furious to learn that on December 13, 1937, the Japanese military captured the Chinese city of Nanking. They killed 300,000 people and raped tens of thousands of girls and women. I was also ashamed that I hadn’t heard of The Rape of Nanking before.

Red Snow was a play I HAD to see.

However, the closer it got to seeing Red Snow, the more nervous I became. I don’t know anything about dancing, Chinese opera or much of anything about Asia. I was certain that I was in over my head.

Fortunately I was able to secure Mooney on Theatre’s own Wayne Leung to accompany me. Wayne has visited Nanking and he shared some fascinating insights. Having barely crawled out of a swamp, I am very grateful for any insights and help.

I was wrong to feel intimidated by the dancing/movements. The interactions onstage seemed natural and moved the story along without being preachy or elitist. As a matter of fact, the synchronized origami was a highlight for me. William Yong has done a great job as movement director/music director.

There are some things we share that are eternal and forever true. Love and forgiveness are the two most obvious examples. Chinese opera seems to have a lot of universalities. My fear of the unknown was soon replaced by appreciation of the familiar. For me, the underlying theme of Red Snow is the undying nature of humanity.

Red Snow has five actors portraying three generations. All bring great and diverse talent to the stage. I was particularly impressed with the two males, Derek Kwan and Richard Tse.

Tse commands the stage. He’s one of those actors who seems to put a spell on everyone. He helped me forget that I was in a theatre. He helped me forget that I was watching a play at times. I could identify with all the actors, but I “knew” Gung Gung, Tse’s character.

Education is one of our most important gifts. Not so long ago, Chaos theory was all the rage. A professor of mine once explained “the butterfly effect”. He said that a butterfly flapping its wings in China might eventually create a blizzard in Canada.

I first learned of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from a punk rock song.  Now I’ve learned of The Rape of Nanking from a play. Art often teaches us things that are considered verboten by the media or even schooling.

Telling the truth is dangerous. In some parts of the world it is illegal. The truth can also heal. Red Snow is a dangerous play that hopes to heal. Red Snow might be the beautiful butterfly that helps the healing and encourages Japan to be brave and strong enough to say, “We’re sorry.”

Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. This is one of those special times when everything works. Playwright/Producer Diana Tso has created an astonishing, almost unbelievable work. She’s had some help from an incredible team of government, community and corporate partners.

When I was in grade school, they bused us to an auditorium to see The Mikado. I suppose that was designed to introduce us to Asian “culture”. These days, thanks to the educational initiatives of the Red Snow Collective and their partners Toronto Alpha, high school kids will get to see Red Snow and spend a day in workshops discussing it. We’ve come a long way, baby.

The music, composed by Alice Ping Yee Ho, really adds a great deal to Red Snow. I could watch Patty Chan and Brandon Miguel Valdivia if they were the only two onstage. Chan plays the the erhu and gaohu, two traditional instruments in Chinese opera.  Valdivia plays percussion.  At one point, a small bell is struck several times. It reminded me of the start of John Lennon’s (Just Like) Starting Over, and really choked me up.

At the end of Red Snow, Wayne looked at me and said “Wow!” I was speechless and simply nodded in agreement. To have the same effect on someone familiar with Chinese culture and someone shamefully ignorant is something very special.

It is very difficult to do justice to Red Snow in a review. It is also impossible to not to want to share with my friends how good it is. Red Snow is groundbreaking and brave. It is a stunning success. Go see it.


Red Snow is playing at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave) until January 28
– Showtimes are 7:30 January 18-21 and January 23-28
– 2:00pm matinees are available on January 16, 21, 25 and 28
– Tickets are General Admission – $30.00 there is a $2.50 service fee ticket; please call for student pricing
– Tickets are available online, at 416.504.7529 or in person

-photo of Vienna Hehir and Richard Tse by Alex Felipe

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