The theme of the second Wuzhen International Theatre Festival was Metamorphoses, and the first metamorphosis was to the town of Wuzhen itself. Mid-week, a couple of days before the 10-day festival opened on October 30, 2014 [read about the opening here], all up and down the fairy-tale stone-block walkways, the carved wooden shutters were closed, the network of waterways quiet.
First, the main throughway outside the hotel began to change: in the evenings, storefronts were swinging open to become food stands. As the weekend approached, long strings of lights were being hung overhead, and later, turned on at twilight. The canals gradually filled with gondolas, their nimble gondoliers, the laughter and calling of their customers, and the hummm-click of cameras. No longer my sole domain, now I had to share the hotel’s breakfast room, first with an assortment of tourists visiting the town, then increasingly with sleepy eaters and their families arriving from around the world, both those coming to see the theatre festival and those coming to make it. The outdoor performances began to occupy every public square and narrow alleyway, above and below eye level—puppets large and small, dance old and new, music on handmade instruments, earnest readings of new plays, performance art with clothing coming off—until the entire town was filled with hundreds and hundreds of artists in a continuous Outdoor Carnival celebrating that mysterious magnet between doer and watcher that is performance.
On the opposite bank of the waterway, the Young Theatre Artist’s Competition for new works—naturally a huge component of this festival spearheaded by China’s leading playwrights—was heating up, with twelve creative groups competing for prizes in the four and five figures. Currently committed to Chinese-language plays, the Festival’s Competition plans on opening up to other languages in future years. In the meantime, the fact of the Competition made for a healthy contingent of artistic young people to be spotted in the town’s stylish cafes and bars.
On this side of the water, the mornings saw people gathering for the Workshops given by festival luminaries, among them Terry O’Reilly (Mabou Mines, U.S.) and Eugenio Barba (Odin Teatret, Denmark), who was the Festival’s Honorary Chairman for this year. In the afternoons, the lines just kept growing longer to get into the Wuzhen Dialogues. Seats for these free public conversations between Chinese and international masters of the theatre were justifiably coveted: many of the discussions were fascinating and unexpected, and many of the questions from the audience were hard-hitting. For those of us who don’t speak Chinese, the translators—albeit having varying levels of skill—were a real gift. What I heard in these pleasingly informal Dialogues added dimension to what I saw in the theatre productions—far more so than the usual dramaturge’s pre-show talk, or the standard, formulaic artists’ press conference.
And with all these elements of the festival in swing, and the town’s unique constellation of historical and cutting-edge theatres fired up to go, the metamorphosis of Wuzhen was well on its way, from an ancient, picture-postcard water town—both restored and restorative—to the world’s newest, great theatre festival.
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Note: Please see the Festival website
for the full program of plays
Green Snake, dir. Tian Qinxin, performed by the National Theatre Company of China (Beijing) at the Wuzhen Water Theatre.
I reviewed this show for Scene4 here:
Valse, written and directed by Renzo Vescovi, presented by Teatro Tescabile Di Bergamo (Italy), in Shi Tian Square (outdoors).
Valse, Teatro Tescabile Di Bergamo. Photo uncredited
Since 1972, this company has performed for half a million viewers in 38 countries, and also contributed professionally and academically to the life of the theatre in numerous other ways a company can: by teaching and being taught about, lecturing and being lectured about, writing and being written about, filming and being filmed. Its founder, Giuseppe Chierichetti, has taken the company in two directions. First, they work in the European and Theatre of Anthropology veins, performing open-air and visually striking pieces featuring stilts. Second, Chierichetti has founded Italy’s Oriental Staging Culture Institute, and his company performs the Indian Kathakali Dance-Drama. They brought the former to Wuzhen.
To begin the 45-minute piece, there was a ceremonial placing of small lights on the ground to mark the perimeter of the playing space. The core of the show was certainly the waltzing of the title. These were familiar waltzes done to familiar waltz music, made exciting by the stilts. The dancers towered over us so that every step of the top-hatted men seemed especially sweeping, and every swoosh of the long tulle dresses made the women seem exceptionally airborne. This piece inhabited what Stefan Zweig called “the world of security”: describing Imperial Vienna, so much associated with the waltz, he wrote, “It was wonderful to live here… and in its light air, as in Paris, it was a simple matter to enjoy life… Making music, dancing, the theatre, conversation, proper and urbane deportment, these were cultivated here as particular arts” (The World of Yesterday). Indeed, the pleasure of, well, pleasure, was the focus of this part of the performance.
Around the dancing, there was a frame story involving a Little Girl in a high-waisted white dress with straw hat and very large white balloon, and a Monkey rolling a golden ball. A test of wills seemed to ensue between Innocence and Greed, with Monkey trying to tempt Girl with his gold, and her resisting. Instead, she seemed interested in those cultural values Zweig spoke of, and she either went to a garden party full of soaring waltzers (see above), or dreamed she did, depending on who you ask. In any case, there was suddenly gunshot at the party, the dancers scattered in “fear,” and a sword fight was cleverly staged as a shadow play against a back wall. This violence appeared to presage the destruction of their beautiful way of life, and Monkey rose up with his golden ball in triumph: the money-grubbing war-mongers of the world prevailed. To my surprise, the dancers returned to dancing, though, as if oblivious that their wide smiles weren’t enough to keep World War I from happening. What with one thing and another, this narrative thread concluded the show with the Little Girl in possession of the golden ball, and the Monkey gleefully sporting her beribboned hat. Good and evil might co-exist, but they might also change places, so you have to stay alert.
The waltz section started out evocative, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was somewhat relentlessly so, with much obligatory gaiety and forced laughter to make the point. The performers must have been jet lagging, and it was drizzling, and surely they were all giving their all. Perhaps there were subtleties in the dancing or stilt techniques that I couldn’t discern, or I was looking for interest in the wrong place as one pair of dancers recombined with another pair, over and over, and I waited for some sort of story to develop: now there were more men than women for partnering—would there be a quarrel? One woman was drunk—would trouble follow? Dancers called out to each other in Italian: was this a clue? Two women greeted each other with exaggerated warmth—was there a story behind this? No.
Some days later, when the director talked about his work at a Dialogues event, an audience member asked: “Why did you choose this piece for this festival? You must have wanted us to get more out of it than just stilts, but I didn’t get it, I was just guessing.” And the director confirmed that he’d intended a more subliminal, less obvious kind of event. In Western drama, he said, “theatre” means a text in a theatre space (the audience at a distance), and one figure (presumably a protagonist) controls the action. But in the Indian dramatic system, there is no separation between, for example, dance, dancer, and actor. His company has chosen the Indian way, he said: the story may be simple, but it is told in bravura dancing, close to the audience, and in this way, they want to “celebrate a certain lightness.”
The piece certainly established a mood, included expert feats of skill, and had sequences of great visual charm: an elegantly dressed dwarf who wandered through the action made a memorable contrast with the stilt dancers; golden ball, white balloon, enormous blue balloons and red paper lanterns made for a pretty sea of globes floating in the dark; three-tiered sparklers showered down from the lighting towers on both sides of the square, and when the dancers released their balloons at the end—the end of an era? of a dream?--flares inside them burst the balloons and lit up the sky. Maybe the audience’s delighted “Ooh”s right then were just the spontaneous enjoyment the director hoped for.
1587, A Year of No Significance, script by Mathias Woo and Zhang Jianwei. Dir. Mathias Woo, performed by Zuni Icosacheon (Hong Kong) in the Wuzhen Grand Theatre.
Wuzhen Grand Theatre. Photo © Lissa Tyler Renaud
Basically all of the Festival’s productions worked well in the theatres selected for them—a feat not always possible at festivals—and no production was luckier than this one, which played in the magnificent new Grand Theatre. From the outside, the building is all contrasts: traditional and hyper-modern, angular and round, solid and delicate, stone and glass, vertically rhythmical and horizontally graceful. But sitting in the theatre’s seats, it is all harmony: teal, steel and slate blend in color; a forest of magenta trees is projected onto a massive curtain, where it glides from left to right without interruption. Hard surfaces meet rounded balconies meet walls covered with panels of indigo fabric in a flower pattern said to be Wuzhen’s own, but which looks as playful as Flower Power bell-bottoms circa 1967. The seats are slightly raised, so they seem slightly to float, and which allows for luxurious legroom, so different from many American, economy airline-like theatre seats.
Mathias Woo, the show’s director-playwright-designer, studied architecture in Hong Kong and London. Among his many interesting interests is the relationship between architecture and theatre. So not only did the set for the show have a certain architectural quality—a standing white surface on a white stage—but, more than usual, it felt organic to the whole, architecturally-emphatic theatre space we were in.
Woo is also concerned with history, literature, politics and public policy, and his theatre includes social and educational missions. So dramatizing Ray Huang’s book, 1587, A Year of No Significance, must have seemed like a dream project. Ray Huang was a major in the Chinese army, and then a much-respected U.S. professor of Chinese History. His book on the failure of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) is in the same lineage as Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513), which scholar Max Lerner describes as “part of a whole traditional literature on princes that stretches back to the Middle Ages”: “the discussion of how to rule conquered territory, what advisers a prince should rely on, how he should conduct himself among the intrigues of diplomacy,” and so on. Before Yale University Press picked up the book in 1981, Huang had trouble finding a publisher, because 1587 fell between scholarly and popular readerships. It is a fascinating, odd-duck of a book—and it remained so on the stage.
Woo’s shows are known for combining his architectural perspective with multi-media, and that was how he gave the production its impact: elaborate still and moving projections of images and text—sometimes even onto the actors—with traditional screens becoming video screens; voice-over; a section performed from the incomparable “Peony Pavilion,” the 1598 Kunqu music-dance-drama; and eye-popping costumes.
1587, A Year of No Significance. Director, Designer,
Script: Mathias Woo. Photo © www.wuzhenfestival.com
The original book is a Rashomon-like series of first-person accounts of life in and around the court of Emperor Wanli, who was almost contemporaneous (1563-1620) with Shakespeare (1564-1616). In this colorful world of courtiers and retainers, imperial wives and concubines, eunuchs and slaves, each story tells of a tiny, tiny seed of trouble planted and which, from the perspective of macro-history, grew into political disaster years later. For the playscript, Woo and his collaborator, Zhang Jianwei, chose six of the accounts to serve as “monologues,” each speaker from a different part of society—middle class, bureaucrat, prime minister, general, philosopher, emperor—and then staged each one in a different manner: dramatic styles ranging from very exaggerated to very internal, storytelling, operatic, and inspired by Greek tragedy. Sometimes, more than one of these was onstage at a time: one player stopped several times to answer his cell phone, pulled from the folds of his classical costume.
The final monologue reminded me of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, whose response to the hypocrisy of those around him is to go live in a cave and to rail. In this show, the man had become a monk to escape the conniving at work and at home. Everyone is so fake, he raged. Everyone said how inter-connected we all were, but where were they when my sons starved to death? Then my relatives wanted their son to be my “heir”—ostensibly to take care of me, but really for an inheritance! Also, he said, he’d been known to go to brothels, and a colleague had tried to protect him by saying some nonsense about entering into passion to dispense with passion… No! this passion is human! he insisted. Many scholars believe Timon of Athens killed himself—and the end of this monologue, and of the show, was the apparent suicide of the monk, indicated by the sound of static, of something having been disconnected from its source.
So there they were: marvelous concept, set and costume designs, subject matter, script, enriching points of contact with my own Western culture—an overall socially and artistically worthwhile endeavor. And yet, the night I saw it, it did not fulfill its promise. Each of the six monologues was about 30 long minutes long, and the surtitles were only sporadically helpful, and the actors, though clearly skillful in many ways, weren’t able to bring enough vocal or physical variety to the material to bring it to life. And their approach to acting didn’t ring a bell for me: each one seemed to adopt a single characteristic and to sustain it over the half hour. So while every possible kind of technical and conceptual variety swirled around the actors, the humanity of the people they played got lost in the one-note sameness of the players’ performances.
I wonder if it was a coincidence that Mathias Woo later raised the issues of vocal and physical training at the Dialogues. He reminded the audience that traditional theatre had been performed in small spaces, without microphones. Now it’s performed in huge spaces, with microphones: a big change. In the 1960s, the voice training given to traditional performers still provided a good foundation for acting. But now performers are cut off from this training. We are a “fast food” culture, and the traditional ten years of training has been shortened to just two. As a result, traditional theatre might seem superficial, but it actually had many layers and structures.
Woo continued: This is also true of physical training. Note that the texts for traditional operas weren’t written down, they were passed down orally, and much has been lost. But what we know was very subtle, and since there weren’t any surtitles, a lot had to be told physically. Woo described a two-hour long show he’d done without any actors—which sounded much like the retaliatory impulse of many designers at the turn of the 20th century against fake-y acting: banish actors. Woo concluded with a remark about the importance of training for actors—training, he said, should be as important to an actor as it is to a painter.
1587, A Year of No Significance offered many pleasures, and was a show of significance.
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, translation into Hindi by Amitosh Nagoal. Dir. Atul Kumar, performed by The Company Theatre Mumbai (India) in the Ancient Courtyard Theatre.
Twelfth Night [Piya Behrupiya], The Company Theatre Mumbai
Photo © www.wuzhenfestival.com
At the thought of seeing Twelfth Night, I always brace myself. I find the gulling of Malvolio—taking advantage of his crush on his employer to humiliate him—and his pitiful scene, isolated in a darkened room as a madman, unbearably sad. The ruse is never funny to me, even before the whole thing sours and the pranksters recognize the cruelty of their joke. I stand with many who have thought long about the play and decided, like Allison P. Hobgood, that “the play is not a narrative about the limits of mourning or the pleasures of romantic love but about the calculated shaming of Shakespeare’s ‘mad’ steward.” Here is Malvolio imprisoned, unwittingly pleading to one of the tricksters who got him there:
Sir Topas, never was man thus wronged: good Sir
Topas, do not think I am mad: they have laid me
here in hideous darkness.
I say, this house is as dark as ignorance, though
ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say, there
was never man thus abused. I am no more mad
than you are… (IVii)
Enter Atul Kumar and his wondrous troupe with their effervescent Hindi production. By letting the Malvolio story recede, and bringing to the fore the comic A-loves-B-loves-C-loves-A story (Olivia-Viola [disguised as Cesario]-Orsino), they have been able to adapt the text into a musical comedy that is pitch-perfect on its own terms.
There are several reasons this worked where foreign adaptations of Shakespeare are too often unsatisfying, or worse. One was that the company didn’t jettison the mixed tone of Shakespeare’s text. The complex of wildly different moods is an inextricable feature of the play. Pick and choose randomly among them and you do a disservice. In Shakespeare’s original, numerous threads are braided together, each strand having a different rhythm and texture: new love and recent death, drowning and comic cross-dressing, mistaken identity and a cruel joke, rowdy drinking and solitary longing. Even the tying up of all the reunions and love matches at the end has undertones of sadness.
This production focused on two strands: the love triangle, and the gang of nutty and hard-drinking roisterers in Olivia’s household. This was enough contrast. Other threads or characters were reduced or served as accents. Then the production concentrated all the deep sorrow of the play on Viola, trapped between the beloved and the unloved, the passionate woman hidden in man’s clothing. In one interpolated scene, Viola was left alone onstage to deliver a heart-rending song of unrequited love while reverse-engineering her male disguise: smearing off her grease-pencil moustache, slowly unwinding her turban to let her long hair fall loose, she metamorphosed before our eyes, from a swash-buckling young man, to a lovely—very feminine, very heart-broken—young woman.
The ingenious translation was a huge factor in the success of the adaptation. So much of “foreign Shakespeare” is done with little attention to—or access to?—how Shakespeare used language, or even to his themes; companies simply create a new piece following the basic plotline of the original, and impose their own themes. This translation of Twelfth Night made a heroic commitment to working from the language, not in the sense of finding word-for-word equivalents, but in capturing the deeper rhythms of the language shifts from prosaic to romantic, and witty to tragic. These shifts were evident even in the Hindi, a language I don’t know, in part by the clarity of the performances, in part by using dance to support comic language, and singing to enhance poetic language. Imagine that the Hindi was then translated into English and Chinese for the surtitles; the English gave us a marvelous window onto the punning and lyrical beauty of the Hindi version, while still, even at this remove, it captured an essence of Shakespeare’s play that one might miss in a native English production.
Atul Kumar and I participated in a Dialogues event, on the subject of Shakespeare at foreign festivals. (Also with us were writer-translator Shen Lin, a Director of the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing; and Stan Lai, Festival co-founder and a major playwright-translator himself.) So I was able to ask Kumar from the stage what he could tell us that would enrich our viewing of his Twelfth Night. His production was commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, and with a residency, Kumar’s company was able to live together to develop the production. They worked with a North Indian form of folk theatre, nautanki, usually performed in a village courtyard—which made it a special treat to see the show in the Festival’s own Ancient Courtyard Theatre, only recently elegantly enclosed for year-round enjoyment.
This folk form also invites direct address to the audience, Kumar said—and I found this out the next night, sitting in the front row, where they teased me, calling me “Auntie” and having me choose which necklace to present to Olivia (I chose the sparkly one). On a deeper level, the players talked with the audience about what was going on, and even about the relationship of their production to the original play: when the plot took a surprising turn, an actor tried to read the surtitles, as if hoping for explanation; Viola’s un-drowned twin brother, Sebastian, complained bitterly—with an electric smile— that his part had been not only cut, but combined with another, smaller character. This was doubly charming, since the actor was the one who adapted the play.
Kumar also told us that some performers in the company are also directors. Surely an element of the show’s authoritative quality came from this fact. And as per the nautanki form, we learned that the script, translation, music (based on melodies from different parts of India), song lyrics, choreography, and costume designs were all done by the performers, who were also seated onstage the whole time (including the director’s charismatic six-year old daughter), playing instruments, singing, reacting and amplifying the action or mood when they weren’t leaping up to dance with discipline and irresistible ebullience.
All in all, this merry band of preternaturally gifted artists has created a theatrical event that might provide a much-needed key to creating foreign adaptations worthy of Shakespeare.
The Maids, by Jean Genet. Dir. Meng Jinghui, performed by the Meng Jinghui Theatre Studio (Beijing) in West Warehouse Theatre.
The Maids. Director Meng Jinghui. The two Maids, with
their Mistress on chair. Photo © www.wuzhenfestival.com
When director and Festival member Meng Jinghui came to talk at a Dialogues session, he drew crowds. I wondered how much of the audience came for his rock star-like acclaim, and how much for his learned, courageous, convention-challenging productions.
Along with having a mock-prickly exchange with Mathias Woo (see above) on the topic of “The Avant-Garde View,” Meng introduced his production of The Maids in terms that seemed to thumb his nose at his “fans.” His show, he said with a deadpan expression, was oh, maybe forty minutes long. About ten minutes of it worked, so he’d told his actors to just sing or do something to fill the other thirty minutes. The show wouldn’t start till 11:30 so, Meng shrugged, he figured his audience would be tipsy by then and not too picky about what was on stage.
Frankly, this sounded like a great improvement on the actual play. Based loosely on a 1933 news story of a woman and daughter murdered by their two maids, Genet made a play in 1945. It is usually produced in a hybrid realistic-absurdist manner that hasn’t aged well: the realistic aspects are that the action takes place on a realistic bedroom set, and the women wear uniforms of black dresses with white aprons that signal their maid-ness; the absurdist aspect tries to justify watching two women play pseudo-kinky maid-mistress games of the sado-masochistic, homoerotic, psycho-dramatic ilk, complete with riding whip and barked commands to “Crawl! crawl!” Aside from giving some excellent actresses star turns over the years, I’ve found productions of the play to be on a spectrum from repellent to dull. A sample—one Maid about to pretend-strangle the other Maid dressed as Mistress:
I'm going back to my kitchen, back to my gloves and the smell of my teeth. To my belching sink. You have your flowers, I my sink. I'm the maid. You, at least, you can't defile me. But! But!... [Solange advances on Claire, threateningly.] But before I go back, I'm going to finish the job.
In Meng’s next remarks, he sounded like a member of the artistic-intellectual family of Kurt Schwitters, whose work I revere. First, Meng described having once gotten 500 sheep from Mongolia—when and to what purpose (if there was one) wasn’t clear. He said he’d like to do it again, but that things had become more difficult now. This was exciting. Next, he told of having put twenty-six people on stage, each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet, and…? The translation faltered here… In any case, when the Dialogues audience laughed, Meng encouraged them: “You can make this performance yourselves!”
It suddenly struck me that his blasé manner might be designed to keep random crowds from mobbing the small theatre his show was in, and that his was going to be a very substantial, fantastic piece of work. And it was.
Meng did everything right. For starters, he had the two Maids and their Mistress played by young men—Genet himself suggested something similar—but in male clothing, and not feminized. Right away, this moved the play from “psychological” story, or camp, to ritual: no longer about choosing to pretend, but about the compulsion to carry out a series of actions invested with certain meanings. This shifted the focus of the production from sex-play to (the more interesting) power, and the perversions of the spirit that arise in the ones who are powerless. How do the abusers of power operate, and how do you resist or circumvent them? If thinking is not allowed, what do thoughts turn into?
Meng commented brilliantly in an interview that his production wasn’t Absurdist so much as “theatre of cruelty.” This meant using the text as a starting point for an interdisciplinary work and, avoiding the logical development the audience expects, to look squarely at extreme behaviors and anxieties lurking in the underbelly, as it were, of human consciousness. Meng achieved exactly this, mixing a lot of other things with a punk-rock aesthetic: segments of hysteria, paranoia, and violent fantasy were strung together with rock-like interludes played on an acoustic guitar and sung—sometimes melodically—with outrageous and obscene lyrics.
The long, narrow, black stage had a white cloth pulled across as a backdrop, with several oversized black brush strokes painted from one end to the other. The whole space felt like a pop-up rehearsal space for a teenage grunge band. A doorway was covered with a sheet and lit from behind for a butoh-slow shadow play: an impossibly disheveled silhouette growing, trembling, extending a heroin addict-thin finger towards some hallucination. Objects: a wheelchair, a urinal, a commercial refrigerator completely filled with ominous insulation material; downstage right, a makeshift “kitchen” counter for improvising poisons. Jutting into the audience, there was a small, too-brightly colored dollhouse: a fractured image of what the staring, creepy plastic dolls did in there was projected jerkily onto the backdrop, as if we were viewing through a cracked lens.
In combat boots, weird and homemade-looking clothing, and unearthly whiteface, all three actors glided, stomped, stumbled and otherwise filled the stage with such delicious, intense abandon that they appeared more possessed than performing. Meng has stressed that the actors contributed a lot of what we saw, and made changes for each show, and there was certainly a sense of ownership we don’t see enough in actors on stage. Now blustering, now cringing, now singing out, now taking a video trip to a paradise that grows undetectable lethal substances, now cooking up a murderous tea like Julia Childs twins from hell—again and again they took the audience across a line where we, and their characters, couldn’t tell what was real and what imagined. When they were hacking with a butcher knife at that large bone with raw meat on it, was it dinner, or their Mistress?
Genet’s play is titillating; Meng’s version is robust. In the original, small indignities sicken into insipid criminality; in this one, oppressive power is met with imagination, invention, hunger, and even humor. The forms these take may be bizarre, grotesque or unnatural, but they are fervently alive, and trying to find the light. Having covered the stage floor with a frolicker’s mayhem of peanut shells and glitter, one Maid squirts mayonnaise into the other’s fright wig like a solicitous hairdresser, and we see in it a scary heroism.
Amazing Tales—One Bird, Six Lives, by Xu Bing. Dir. Lin Zhaohua, presented by the Abundant Fruit Lin Zhaohua Drama Center (Beijing) in the Studio Theatre of the Wuzhen Grand Theatre.
Amazing Tales: One Bird Six Lives. Director Lin Zhaohua
Photo © www.wuzhenfestival.com
Director Lin Zhaohua has been an ongoing force in China’s theatrical world—and abroad—for fifty years, and audiences still know to expect surprises from him. This production was based on a 17th century story, but Lin cast young actors and even injected a little R&B into the show. (He’s also done a heavy-metal Coriolanus.)
The story is about a man who makes the preposterous claim—and bets “one bird” that he’s right—that he won’t die even if his head is cut off. What with one thing and another, his wager ends up costing “six lives” all across the social spectrum.
Somewhat like 1587, A Year of No Significance (see above), this story challenges our assumptions about cause and effect, since the causes of the effects are so counter-intuitive and arbitrary.
It was clear that I was watching the work of a master. Sadly, apart from that, I can’t report much more than what an interested reader can find online. The surtitles alternately stayed on one line for long sections of a scene, and raced through dozens of lines all at once. I wondered if the helper on surtitles duty was falling asleep and then trying to catch up. But someone made a more authoritative guess that the order of some scenes had been changed at the last minute and they’d forgotten to change the surtitles to match.
Luckily, it was beautiful. The sets and costumes were in an unusual color palette of light and dark reds and browns: beige, taupe and cherry; chocolate, scarlet and maroon. This narrow tonal range turned the audience’s attention to the wide range of textures in surprising combinations. Props were in wood: simple birdcage, bamboo stakes, guitar. The actors wore the costumes and handled the props admirably: this area of the actor’s job is becoming a lost art.
Part of the fun of theatre festivals is that everyone on both sides of the metaphorical curtain are out of their element and improvising to a lesser or greater extent. Somewhere along the line, the correct surtitles for this show went amiss, so it was a good thing there was much else to enjoy.
Beijing Style, play script written and directed by A Bi, based on the book by Hu Jiujiu, performed in the Ancient Courtyard Theatre.
Beijing Style, Director A Bi. Photo © www.wuzhenfestival.com
This show was based on a recent book that has struck a resounding chord for those grappling with Life Today. It was written by poet, essayist, and media figure, Hu Jiujiu, who was appealing and thoughtful at his Dialogues session. The clever set-up for the play was that three guests have been invited for dinner by a host who is stuck in traffic and, Godot-like, never shows up. While waiting, the guests and the waiter turn out to have known one another before, but where and why aren’t clear, or come in and out of focus, or morph.
Along the way, they ponder questions that young people ponder: about relationships, notions of success, feelings of alienation, and life goals and priorities. We learn that the young in Beijing are overworked and tired of the smog. Social media have compromised their closeness to the people around them.
This was the first show I saw that was all contemporary language. One pitfall of festivals can be a full program of exaggeratedly visual or physical shows, to get around the problem of performing for audiences that speak different languages. So even though I didn’t understand what they were saying in this show, I was pleased for the young people in the audience who could hear characters in a play speaking close to the way they might speak. On top of that, the actors’ lines were apparently in a distinctly Beijing style, which the Chinese audience clearly relished.
Whoever did the English surtitles had more good will than knowledge of English, probably translating literally, word by word: the titles were impenetrable. Even the person moving the titles along couldn’t match what the actors were saying with the titles, and often simply gave up for a while. This was a double loss for me, since, again, the original text was written by a poet.
My colleague, critic Nancy Pellegrini, who lives in Beijing and could follow the text somewhat, wrote that the play was like “My Dinner with Andre on acid.” My experience was different: it was as if a Pinter play had been re-conceived for mainstream television: it felt Pinter-ish in that the relationships were obscure, and sequences of short lines were followed by a monologue, and punch lines seemed to be arrived at circuitously, so that they caught the audience by surprise. The meaning of the lines also seemed to depend a lot on delivery.
But the style of it was all TV—with the concerns expressed on shows such as “Friends”—so I wasn’t surprised to read that’s where the fellow who adapted the book for the stage and directed it had done his training and spent much of his successful career. But the actors weren’t very polished; if nothing else, they didn’t have the skill to pantomime actions such as drinking from a glass, as they were directed to do—something I wish were punishable by law. Their play only took up the house-right half of the stage, and a toilet had been placed squarely in the middle on the left, and then it wasn’t used for anything, except for twice when someone perched awkwardly on it, fully clothed, as if they’d mistaken it for a chair. I can only think the theatre space assigned to the group was too large for them, and they decided to put something to fill the space, and chose a toilet to give us something to think about.
The group’s promotional blurb said the theme of the show is: “Love, youth and wine—three of the best things in life; one’s life ends when they are gone.” I am not their age or a drinker: I spent 90 minutes watching actors who think I’m two-thirds dead.
I didn’t find my way into this production. But I was likely the only one, since the audience around me responded throughout with sighs of recognition and high spirits.
Ode to Progress, written and directed by Eugenio Barba. Presented by Odin Teatret (Denmark) in the Ancient Courtyard Theatre.
Ode to Progress, Odin Teatret. Director Eugenio Barba
Photo © www.wuzhenfestival.com
In his open-to-the-public Dialogues session, Barba energetically distanced himself from the scholars (“the parasites of the theatre”), from theatre historians (“give a book of theatre history to a young actor and what will he learn from it?”), and from the critics (“writing [about a show] ‘oh, this isn’t so good…’”). From these remarks, you might not guess that Barba has Masters degrees in Literature and the History of Religion, is on the advisory boards of five major scholarly journals; has written countless, widely-translated theoretical books and articles; and been awarded eleven (and counting) honorary doctorates. He has also won a wide range of awards, including more than one from the critics: in Beijing a few weeks earlier, I was present when he was awarded the Thalia Prize (accepted by a colleague), the highest honor given by the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC).
This is the 50th anniversary of Barba’s theatre, Odin Teatret. Its story is one of moving the margins to the center. Working from a provincial town in Denmark, he and his actors have created work that is sought after in the world’s theatres. His group, which he told the Wuzhen audience had started as “a theatre of immigrants and autodidacts,” has long been a theatre of international artists with an ongoing rigorous training that they share widely, inspired in part by the two-and-a-half years Barba trained with Grotowski. “A loss, a privation, a lack, an exclusion”—these are the wounds, Barba wrote, that he and his group members suffered from not finding work in the professional theatre so that they had to start their own troupe. From this injured posture, and with wonderful support, Barba has made a popular theatre about outsiders, the disenfranchised, the anguished.
It can take practice to reach the pleasures this kind of theatre can offer (one Chinese spectator commented to Barba at the Dialogues: “I didn’t get it.”) It can be slow going. The performers act out simple scenarios, mostly without language; instead, they use masks, puppets of various scales, toys, music, dance, cabaret, gestural and visual languages from different cultures, and simple objects imaginatively transformed. The outlines we have of original commedia dell’arte sketches—one ancestor of Odin Theatre—are so bare that we can guess how much skill it took to sustain them.
Barba said in an IATC interview that the city of Holstebro, where Odin Teatret works, has “managed to keep the company economically and artistically autonomous from all the trends of these 50 years… So even if one can see we are not in the avant-garde, we are [also] not in anything else.” By way of synchronicity, the European Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theatre, which he founded in New York in 1963, has important points of contact with Odin Teatret, founded in Norway in 1964: a similar return to first principles using large puppets, orientation towards the homespun and a broad world view, and the slow unfolding of original scenarios.
Ode to Progress heated up slowly. Upstage, props were arranged, waiting: toys and instruments. A blind musician, with the long forelocks of the orthodox Jew, was led to his place. Gradually, quirky characters gathered: a large torso with a tiny dinosaur-alien head, an overly-tall beskirted figure with a skull head, a full-sized bear with accordion, masked stilt-walkers with elongated sproingy fingers, a mannish woman in a top hat, Death in a cape, and several others. A handmade, improvised feel to everything. Music, played for fun, not for the concert hall.
One after another, the characters took an unhurried turn all the way around the stage, showing off their moves: inexpert entertainment for a small town square. (Barba joked that it was “like Martians doing a Broadway show,” but it had far more charm than that.) Costumes and objects were black and white with red accents: an old photograph of an old world shtetl that could be anywhere. There was fur: a yard-long wig, big bear and teddy bear, a shaggy shawl. This was village life in the slow lane. Just people passing the time together how they could, not bothering anyone.
There was a crescendo in the middle section: things started to happen. There was coupling on crimson satin bedding. There were children-dolls and newborn-dolls. Fertility! A celebration! The internal tempo of things got faster and faster until it felt like someone was over-winding a watch, and the proceedings started to darken. A woman gave birth to a baby skeleton; a woman tried to nurse her baby but only sand poured from her breast. A sinister figure with huge butterfly net tried to trap a woman, and when she escaped, he got her baby instead. Women were tied up.
The final section swooped down with its horror. The top-hatted figure, who could have been a town leader, was enclosed in a square area with red string. A village-mate was at each corner, maybe to witness, but also maybe to instigate something awful: who could tell? It was a boxing ring with one opponent we couldn’t see. The marked area could have been any area cut off from normal life: a ghetto, a concentration camp, a refugee camp, an Indian reservation. When the surrounded one found she couldn’t get out, her character fragmented into shards of the whole world’s pain: she spurted in staccato the names of dictators, warmongers, wars, countries annihilated, the martyred. She fought these with the names of the peace-bringers, the visionaries, the wise men, barking out their names in spasms of effort—a tour de force performance, an unforgettable aria of the wicked and the holy.
In a flash, a pasty white Hunter in ludicrous safari garb entered with a rifle. He shot everybody in the village, and they died in a big heap. The last one remaining was the blind musician. The Hunter put his rifle to the man’s head, and…
When it was over, I couldn’t move, or speak. The truth: I was weeping. The final events came about so fast, before there was time to consider or stop them. Like being in a grass village that’s been set on fire and there’s no hope. Like a mass drowning when a boat goes down fast, or a bombing when the people disintegrate instantly. It takes generations to absorb such things, if it can be done. Now, the life of the companionable town, that had seemed somewhat painfully slow at the beginning of the performance, was a paradise lost, and yearned for.
Morning, Morning, written and directed by Yang Ching-Hsiang, presented by Yang’s Ensemble (Taiwan) in the East Warehouse Theatre.
Morning, Morning, Yang Ensemble. Director: Yang Ching-Hsiang
Photo © www.wuzhenfestival.com
Yang’s Ensemble was invited to Wuzhen to represent the thriving “little theatre” scene in Taiwan. Co-founded in 2013, the group has been making a splash with their work reflecting “the current times.” Their talented Artistic Director is Yang Ching-Hsiang (full disclosure: Yang was my directing student in Taipei, 2006-07.) Already since 2009, in addition to appearing in award-winning shows as an actor, Yang has been earning impressive, delighted reviews and Best-of awards on the festival circuit, as playwright, screenwriter, and director.
Morning, Morning is a young people’s show, about a fictional pop group called “Loli Girls.” It imagines the after-hour lives of the real-life young (and not so young) women who have agreed to train and perform under slave conditions in exchange for over-the-top pop celebrity. For their fans, they wear short, frou-frou outfits in candy colors. For their song-and-dance acts, they strike distorted poses, pout, giggle, pucker their lips as if blowing a perpetual kiss. They speak in exaggerated, baby-doll voices on perky, inane topics.
In the sad world of the play, after performances the pop stars are deposited into plexiglas boxes, where they can see each other but not touch. They stand in the center of their boxes, like dolls on a store shelf at night: if they touch the sides—to be together, to help each other, to escape—they receive an electric shock.
In English, “Loli” sounds like “lollipop,” and that’s an apt association: sticky sweet in fluorescent colors. But it also refers to the “Lolita” aesthetic born in Asia. I first encountered this having moved to Japan in 1979: businessmen on the subways commonly read suggestive comic books featuring young girls in their school uniforms. In the 1980s, the schoolgirl “look” first seeped into hip street fashion—paradoxically, in protest against the need to look maturely “sexy”— and then exploded with the experimental fashion houses, glam-rock bands, and Goth fans. By the 1990s, the Lolita fashion was pervasive, and also associated with “anime,” or animated cartoons, as well as with Disney and computer game characters. The social consequences of this are dark: girls grow up enacting the artificial sound and behavior of cartoon girls, literally. To look like them, pre-teens and teens are having plastic surgery to enlarge their eyes, fix their mouths in permanent smiles, create “Western” noses, and generally re-build their faces to look like cartoons.
This youth plastic surgery movement swept through South Korea with real ferocity: training actors in Korea in the 2000s, the subject hovered in many of my classrooms. Students in the performing arts seem at particular risk of being pressured into surgery: I just visited China’s theatre academy in Beijing, where one professor was in the press warning girls with surgically-altered faces not to bother auditioning for the school: “We can tell.” But the pressure is everywhere. The phenomenon has a big presence in Taiwan, so much so that Chinese university students—not immune to the plastic surgery temptation either—call the loathsome baby talk “the Taiwan accent.”
Yang wanted to write a play that would open up the conversation about this for young women. In his Dialogues event, he also talked about “Loli Girls” as a metaphor for larger social problems in the digital age. One troubling behavior of his three “Barbie dolls,” he pointed out, is that they talk out into the space, full front, never addressing each other directly: “Like WeChat; it’s not a real conversation.”
Indeed, conversing normally is only one thing the Loli Girls have forgotten. They barely remember the human parts of themselves after having spent so much of their lives becoming plastic. On this night, when natural feelings and memories break through, we’re not even sure the three will survive till morning: heartbreak, jealousies, fears, trauma, even a flash of perspective on their indentured lives. They’ve never encountered any of these in cartoons, and none of them has a clue how to handle them. When the three make it to morning, and put themselves back together to go on, we know why being plastic seems like such an option.
Once again, I was unable to make sense of the surtitles, so I appreciated it when other aspects of the show helped me follow the story.
The actresses did a fine job: their roles required stamina and focus. They couldn’t move much, and had to talk in baby voices the whole sixty minutes: these would have challenged even very experienced performers, especially under tiring festival conditions.
I have it from good sources that this is a discussion that badly needs to be had, from the junior high to university levels and beyond. I hope the show is seen by as many young women as possible, as well as by the friends, family members and teachers who love them.
Dream Walk, written and directed by Stan Lai (Taiwan), performed in the old Bailian house and garden.
Anybody who writes can tell you: it’s not always clear where a sentence, a word, an image comes from. Sometimes having an idea is physical, and comes with a sense of accomplishment: I made that! Sometimes it emerges from a fog and presents itself for inclusion. Other times, an idea comes whole, and urgent, as if delivered loudly from another plane. An idea might also object to being had, and get up and walk away. At still other times, a thought, a line, a character, a situation, the untangling of a writing knot comes in a dream so real it makes waking reality seem unreal.
Writing also warps time. It might take a few sentences to sum up millennia, or a month to write a few words. And there’s the time-soup stirring within: a bit of a current pop song, a passage from a classical poem, a place or person remembered, an old or new influence, a hope for the future. Written, all these collide and become contemporaneous, exist in the same moment on the page; writing performed, as in the theatre, gathers all these “times” into one big present—at least until it’s all gone, that is, like trails of smoke, or calligraphy done in water on a stone so it evaporates in the sun; or until it all disappears back into the dream that was dreamt by no dreamer.
This is the world of Stan Lai’s new play, Dream Walk. A few years ago, Lai—co-founder of the Festival and First Theatre-Maker Extraordinaire in the Chinese- speaking world and beyond—came across an elegant concatenation of Wuzhen’s old houses and gardens, a romantic jumble of irregular, interconnected indoor-outdoor spaces with a decidedly dramatic feel. (The fitting catch phrase for the Festival is “Beyond the Real, All Wuzhen’s a Stage.”) Lai set about creating a play-and-theatrical event that would move through the spaces. It would be a secret performance, at the end of the festival, with no tickets or advertisement, in an undisclosed location.
One night early in the week, after all the shows were over, Lai invited me to join him where he was going. It was late. Together we went: down the path, over the bridge, under the gateway, to a narrow, somewhat unincorporated area. Nothing was obviously there. Our excursion took on a fun, cloak-and-dagger spirit. Now: avoid the guard, act nonchalant, slip through that opening.
Inside: the dark room of an abandoned old house. At this end, several quiet people were seated here and there on rows of rough benches. At the far end, a raised area of the room had become a simple playing area, brightly lit with a desk and computer, and a makeshift table. Next to that, in jeans and sneakers, standing at the ready with script in hand: Huang Lei, co-founder of the Festival and writer-director-actor stage-and-television mega-star.
Paul McCartney once said that, at the very height of the Beatles craze, all he really wanted to do was go play in a small club somewhere. Just his guitar, his bandmates, people having a drink. This was that. The two renowned artists, Huang Lei and Stan Lai, so much in the public eye at the Festival, in their secret clubhouse, in the dark, with friends, doing what they love: putting on a show.
Adjacent rooms, interior Bailian House. Late night rehearsal, Dream Walk. Huang Lei onstage, Wei Chungrong seated in benches, Stan Lai directing. Video © Lissa Tyler Renaud
Rehearsal. Modern Man is a writer momentarily without an idea, sleeping with his iPod playing. He wakes up, takes a pee, makes some instant noodles, and nothing is ever the same again. Words begin to scroll down his wall, a story about a house, a garden, a woman, a secret. Where is this text coming from? Is the wall writing out his own ideas, or giving him new ones? Or has he heard this story before somewhere? He tests the wall: does it respond to him? No. Even the recording on his cell phone makes cryptic remarks: he might not exist. Confused, he eats his noodles and falls asleep mid-thought.
A Classical Man appears in a room above, writing, picking up the thought where Modern Man left off. Classical Man’s been sleeping, and dreaming the story that Modern Man was writing, and remembering it as real. The woman of the story, Kunqu Singer (Kunqu is 16th century Chinese “opera”), appears in Modern Man’s room in classical theatre dress and makeup, remembering her story, which is the story the two writers were just in the process of writing.
And we were off!—into an Escher-like tale of writers trying to write, and a woman as beautiful as the perfect idea that eludes us. They write in each other’s dreams, disagree about who dreamed who, wake and find themselves where past and present are simultaneous; the men fight for a woman they might have written, or dreamed, or loved, but who thinks she’s imagining them. Like a Muse, she gives them the lines they are longing to write, then gets up and leaves when she damn well pleases.
The actor playing Classical Man (Chen Minghao, very active in Beijing theatre) was reading his newest lines from his iPad (I heard some of the show was developed long distance). He delivered the Chinese classical poetry with the distinctive spoken melody I never tire of hearing (in the final performance, they’d toned this down, and I missed hearing it again). The Kunqu Singer (Wei Chunrong, shining diva assoluta) was an ordinary mortal sitting in the benches (see video above at 00:20) and running through her paces that night, but was celestially lovely for the actual show. She sang her soliloquy with mesmerizing detail, poignancy, clarity and force.
Dream Walk/Peony Pavilion. Wei Chunrong in pavilion with traditional
keyhole lattice-work. Garden, Bailian House. Flautist upper right, Hu Shuai.
Photo © Wuzhen Festival
Audience members who know the Chinese canon would recognize the famous quotations and other references in Dream Walk to the beloved kunqu staple, The Peony Pavilion (1598). Just a taste of a 20-hour play: A young woman falls in love in a dream in a garden, and is so distressed to wake up out of her romance that she wastes away and dies. Cut to: her dream lover strolls in the overgrown garden where the young woman dreamed him, finds and falls in love with her picture. He remembers her from a dream he had, meets her again without knowing she’s a ghost, then brings her back to life. Just one reference of many: the young woman is awakened from her garden dream by a flower petal; in Dream Walk, Kunqu Singer wakes the two men from a garden dream with flower petals.
It was after midnight, and various designers and helpers were still trickling in and slipping out. When I left, they seemed to be gearing up for a long night. Lai first showed some of us through the spaces the audience would move to at the ring of a bell after each scene: from where we first met the writers, to a small courtyard with a view of two houses, to a pavilion in an overgrown garden (add candlelight and haunting, live flute), to a hall with a low table, to a dark house where the music from the first scene is playing.
The actual performance was at 11 p.m. the night before I left the Festival. There was an excited how-did-you-hear-about-it audience of seventy or more. The show went wonderfully well, and ended just the way Lai described it that rehearsal night:
There are tables with thermoses of hot water and packages of instant noodles: the whole audience is invited to eat! We are all writers about to dream. Kunqu Singer emerges from a screened off area: now she’s Modern Woman with a cell phone. She’s just woken up from a dream: the story of the two men was her dream, and she doesn’t know why the audience is there.
Just before we leave—wake up?—the playwright himself emerges, as if he’s just woken up, and takes a tentative bow.
After all, this was all his idea.
* * *
This was a festival that kept its word: it promised Metamorphoses and that’s what we got: the old town became a new theatre festival venue, directors became actors, artists who work alone became public, public figures worked privately, actors became their characters, their characters underwent change. Books became plays, ancient stories were told anew, conversations were had where there had been none, foreigners became friends, strangers became colleagues, the defeated became inspired, individuals became audience members and theatre lovers, theatre lovers came away transformed with new hope for the art form.
And the Festival’s tag line: “Beyond the Real, all Wuzhen’s a Stage.” Yes. Wuzhen became a stage for everything from ancient history to instant noodles, and for creative work as a critical link between nations in dangerous times.
For More Information:
A clip of the show (4:05)
1587, A Year of No Significance
A clip of the show (0:31)
A sample from the original book
A clip of the show (3:11)
Actor-director, Atul Kumar, in clip from Hamlet, The Clown Prince (2:26)
See my introduction to director Meng Jinghui in
Scene4 January 2015
Amazing Tales; Beijing Style; Morning, Morning
Materials not online
Ode to Progress
A clip of the show (7:40)
Grotowski at Odin Teatret 1971 (7:29; no sound)
See my introductions to Stan Lai and Huang Lei in
Scene4 January 2015
Cover photo: Dream Walk, by Stan Lai
Upper left: Huang Lei as Modern Man
upper right, Chen Minghao as Classical Man
lower center, Wei Chunrong as Kunqu Singer