In Chinese Opera there is no scenery other than a table and chair. Stories are told through movement and pantomime. When a new character enters for the first time, it is customary for them to introduce themselves through a poem, and, in the end, everyone recites a valuable lesson. Director and actress Kuang-Yu Fong delivers this disclaimer before Little Red Riding Hood: The Chinese Opera begins. She also tells us that the play will feature a troupe of Beijing and Kun Opera performers who will sing in their native Mandarin but speak in English they only just learned for this show. After delivering this speech, Fong disappears backstage and returns as Little Red.
Little Red Riding Hood: The Chinese Opera, produced by Chinese Theatre Works, re-invents a traditional Western fairy tale in a refreshingly untraditional manner. It features the visual beauty of Chinese Opera with a stunning arrangement of acrobatics and conventional Chinese dance techniques. The Hunter (Hui Zhang) is a martial-arts hero, the Wolf (Zijun Mo) a swift and agile predator and Little Red (Fong), a sweet-faced, sword-wielding warrior.
The fight choreography is fast-paced and dazzling to watch, especially in the theater’s small, intimate space, which is just wide enough to accommodate the actor’s extensive range of movement. Though the floor is made of flat black boards, both Mo and Zhang use it to launch themselves into flips and jumps that reach amazing heights. Zhang manages to twirl several times in the air before landing in a threatening battle stance, his sword poised in an arc above his head.
Wolf is a menacing creature with wide, scowling eyes and a pale white face streaked with thick black stripes. There is a glob of red that starts from his lips and spreads down his chin, giving the impression that he has forgotten to wipe his mouth after his last meal. Upon hearing that Wolf is stalking the roads, Hunter, who has always been afraid of wolves, realizes that now is the time to conquer his fear.
In the meantime, Wolf has set his hungry eyes on Little Red, who skips innocently along the path to her Grandmother’s (Ying Zhang) house. Her Mother (Fanying Meng) has dressed her in a long red cape with flower trim and equipped her with a red-tasseled sword for protection. Referring to Little Red as his “juicy dumpling” Wolf pretends to be a lost and loyal dog to win the girl’s trust. He tricks her into leaving the road to pick flowers, hoping to find an opportunity to eat her in the weeds.
Unfortunately for Wolf, Little Red gives new meaning to the term “fast food.” Every time he is about to pounce on her crouching figure, she springs to her feet in excitement, the tip of her sword accidentally grazing his throat. Wolf decides it will be easier to catch this active young girl unawares at her Grandmother’s house.
With Grandma in peril, Little Red walking naively into a trap, the Hunter prowling the vicinity with his sword, and Wolf bursting in to announce, “I just drop by for dinner,” the scene is set for a climatic confrontation. Mo and Zhang are so dynamic in their own moments that it is easy to imagine the level of spectacular action we will see when their paths cross for this final fight. Both performers deliver on the high expectation.
By the play's end, Hunter learns to conquer his fear, Wolf learns not to eat little girls who are handy with swords, Grandmother learns that it is always good to have a broomstick handy, and Little Red advises us that “A sword means nothing if a person cannot hear a lie from a truth,” wisely adding, “Or tell the difference between a dog and a wolf.”