In “Yellow China Bell,” a 15-year-old Armenian girl is kidnapped by a Russian man who takes her back to his dirt-poor village and makes her his wife, against her will. The social and cultural factors that might cause a woman to stay in such an arrangement are examined.
It is not, one hardly needs to point out, a very fun play. It is emotionally wrenching and sometimes difficult to watch, especially in the tiny Margetts Theatre, where the brief physical distance between audience and actor makes the emotional distance seem smaller, too. There is no intermission, either, which maybe is only fair: If the characters don’t get a respite from the turmoil, neither should we.
That said, I hope no one shies away from watching it for fear of being traumatized. It is not so much disturbing as thought-provoking, the sort of jarring experience that knocks a few things loose but doesn’t knock you out cold. In that sense, it’s “enjoyable,” in the way that a stimulating college lecture or an educational program on PBS is enjoyable. You may exit the theater crying rather than skipping, but you will feel something.
Central to the show is Diane Lynn Rane’s fantastic performance as Mina, the Armenian girl whisked away to Russia. Initially — and understandably — Mina’s outlook is dim. She tells Zara (Laura Reyna), her only friend, “I don’t pray for happiness anymore. I don’t think I believe in it.” Life, she says, consists of “living, dying, and patience in between.” By the end of the play, circumstances with her husband have forced her to reassess some of these attitudes.
Rane’s performance is often physical, using facial expressions and body language to express Mina’s thoughts. She is much shorter than Jesse Ryan Harward, who plays her husband, and much smaller in frame than Daryl A. Ball, who plays the husband’s lusty, gold-chained friend. Her fear of them is strikingly believable, as are all the other emotions she conveys over the course of the show.
By my count, this is the sixth BYU mainstage play in the past 2 1/2 years in which Harward has appeared, and I believe it is his best work. Victor is not meant to be a monster and nothing but; he seems to genuinely love Mina. Harward expertly walks the line between sympathy and derision, and I love this character as much as I hate him.
An early scene in which Victor has just abducted the young Mina (played by Naira Galoustian) and intends to rape her has Harward and Galoustian doing terribly difficult work. They accomplish it with astonishing professionalism and emotion.
Mina’s mother, seen in flashbacks, is played with tenderness by Laurel Sandberg. A sort of interpretive dance chorus that provides movement and occasional narration is acted by Shelley Burton, Amanda R. Schutz and Veronica Naimova.
The director is Megan Sanborn Jones, and the playwright is BYU graduate student LeeAnne Hill Adams.
Should you go? It is intense and cathartic. So, yes.
The joke was that this show was performed without intermission because they knew no one would come back if they gave them a chance to leave. I suspect there is truth in that. If the Margetts weren't so small, thus making leaving more awkward, I believe some people would have walked out after the initial rape scene.