The Red Thread: PlayGround Theatre's magical Chinese journey

Taking inspiration from a Chinese folktale called "The Magical Embroidery," the PlayGround Theatre, which prides itself in bringing unique and innovative stories for all ages to the stage, has unveiled yet another foray into myth and fantasy: The Red Thread.

As with any fairy tale, the allegories and themes don't escape the audience. The Red Thread is a story steeped in traditional archetypes. Love, family, and destiny are interwoven, much like the tapestry that is the tale's MacGuffin.

At the center of the splendid and fluid production is a simple, universal fable of a young Chinese girl, Ling Shih (Christina Jun), who goes on an arduous and lengthy trek across China to save her father's magnum opus — a tapestry he's been meticulously working on for years.

The story opens in the year 400 B.C.E. in a sleepy town called Hangzhou, nestled on the east coast of China. We are introduced to silk weaver Gong Shao (Jesus Quintero). He sits stoically behind a wooden scaffolding that holds the tapestry. The old man is quietly obsessed with the project and, needing to weave a red lotus into the image to complete it, has sent young Ling Shih into the fields to find berries in order to make red thread. Ling returns empty-handed but is resolute in finding the berries so that her father can complete his tapestry.

Gong Shao's two older daughters disapprove of the old man's fixation. The eldest, Yao Xue (Kate Shine), bemoans the family's plight, and her disdain for the youngest sister is evident. Their mother died while giving birth to Ling Shih, and now they all grow hungry because their father is distracted by what he calls his life's grand masterpiece.

In the middle of the night, Yao Xue persuades the middle sister, Mei Hua (Melissa Almaguer), to steal the tapestry. Their furtive plan involves taking it into town, selling it, and then spending the money on food and, more important, fancy clothes to attract rich husbands.

When he discovers his work of art is gone, Gong Shao immediately suspects his eldest daughters, and his spirit is crushed. Ling Shih, desperate to help her despondent father, sets out to recover the tapestry.

As months pass and her journey through kingdoms grows more grueling, Ling Shih eventually finds herself in the Kunlun Mountains, thousands of miles from home. She meets the mystic Guairen (Troy Davidson), who will help her fulfill her ultimate destiny.

As a test, Guairen temps Ling Shih with gold and riches if she simply turns back. She refuses, and he agrees to help her. The mystic administers a series of tests to sharpen her intelligence and willpower while teaching her the importance of patience and finding solutions through meditation and contemplation.

Here the story takes on the student/teacher theme familiar in myths, martial arts films, and movies such as Star Wars. But the formula works thanks to the tale's potent narrative. The audience is emotionally invested in Ling Shih's search as she transforms from a peasant weaver's youngest daughter to a hero.

When Ling Shih completes her challenges, the mystic rewards her with a jade horse sculpture that comes to life and flies her across the skies to help her fulfill her quest. Guairen sends her off with a warning and a prophecy: Ling Shih must find her father's tapestry by sunrise, or the infirm old man will die. And if the tapestry is found and completed, life as she knows it will change forever.

The story then swiftly shifts into a fairy tale. In the play's final act, we meet Wang, the Prince of Khotan (Christian T. Chan), whose mother, Queen Zifu (Marjorie O'Neill-Butler), has been raising him in a cave. Guairen once prophesied the prince would marry a peasant girl from a far-away land, not the designated princess he has never met. Zifu leaves Wang — holding a wedding present wrapped in red thread — to seethe over his plight.

But caves, mothers, and presents are no match for soul mates. And because destiny is the driving force behind The Red Thread, Ling Shih's horse flies her into the prince's cave.

The power of the story rests in Ling Shih's journey. And though her father's tapestry turns out to be much more than a mere wall hanging, we learn that the red thread needed to weave the red lotus is the crux of the girl's odyssey. The Chinese hold an ancient belief that an invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. It's like the Chinese version of the Force, destiny, or kismet.

The Red Thread is a rare and beautiful story, and PlayGround's production is an organic display of Chinese culture, myth, and history, combined with an overwhelming cacophony of music, sound effects, and magnificent set pieces that include rope bridges, the prince's cave, and a gorgeous Chinese palace and village.

Christina Jun gives a stalwart performance as the vulnerable but heroic Ling Shih, and Troy Davidson is a spellbinding presence as Guairen the mystic (he'd make an amazing voice-over guy).

One of the play's better performances comes from the cast we don't see. Much of the story is told through the use of shadow puppets (another ancient Chinese tradition) masterfully manipulated by a crew dressed in black.

Prior to the show, the PlayGround Theatre hands out a study guide that includes facts, study resources, a map that tracks Ling Shih's journey (the equivalent of walking from Miami to Santa Barbara, according to the guide), and a cut-out tangram puzzle. The guide is geared toward children, but adults will get a kick out of it too.

Co-writers Stephanie Ansin (who also directs) and Fernando Calzadilla have created a wholly original fantasy rich in Chinese mysticism, magic, and wonder. We are transported to a different country and culture thousands of years in the past, but ultimately we discover the story is really about us all.

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Chris Joseph