Unexpected force

By Sun Shuangjie Source:Global Times Published: 2016-2-1 18:08:01

A review of the opening shows of Stan Lai’s first theater

A Servant of Two Masters was the last of the six plays I saw during the opening season of Theatre Above in Shanghai, the first theater of US-born Taiwanese auteur Stan Lai, who is one of the leading Chinese practitioners of the craft.

From the end of December to the end of February, Lai is selecting six of his Performance Workshop's famed plays to stage at Theatre Above.

All of them are delivered in Chinese with English subtitles. They included Sand on a Distant Star, which featured popular Hong Kong actress Cheng Pei-pei; A Blurry Kind of Love, with Taiwanese heartthrob singer Chen Chia-hwa; and Crosstalk Travelers, with Chinese TV host and actor Dai Jun.

These three shows sold tickets quickly thanks to those big names, but failed to receive commensurate reviews.

Big names

Sand on a Distant Star tells the romantic story of the fantasies people have when they are frustrated in life.

It offers up some profound thoughts amid slapstick, but unfortunately this production lost its beauty and flow due to the actors repeatedly making mistakes in the delivery of their lines.

A blend of the 18th century French comedy The Game of Love and Chance and Chinese TV and film romances of the late 20th Century, A Blurry Kind of Love aroused constant lighthearted laughter from the audience with its exaggerated performances.

It touched upon common relationship anxieties, but offered few surprises in its storytelling.

Crosstalk Travelers offered a mirror for audience to examine themselves through two Chinese travelers' endless complaints about their compatriots' bad behavior when outside of their home country.

It's admirable to see the director daring to directly criticize Chinese travelers, so that the audience can reflect on their own behavior while traveling and even in their daily lives.

Yet, the play did seem too preachy, and became dreary because of it.

(From top) Scenes from A Servant of Two Masters and Mumble Jumble Photos: Courtesy of Theatre Above

Spring Festival gala

In comparison, the other three plays offer more in the way of surprise. A Servant of Two Masters, which featured a new cast of actors Lai specifically recruited for Theatre Above, filled the audience with constant laughter and applause.

The 135-minute show resembled a lively Spring Festival gala, which offered not only fun but also touching material and bonus performances such as acrobatics.

Adapted from the namesake comedy written by Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni in the 18th century, Lai's A Servant of Two Masters has localized its content for Chinese society and has some dialogue in Shanghai dialect especially for local audience.

Zong Juntao played the role of Truffaldino, a servant who covertly found himself two masters and struggled to satisfy each while not getting caught by either of them.

He delivered vividly the covetous grass-roots role, and unexpectedly plucked on my heart string as I found resonance with him.

Lai satirically emphasizes Truffaldino's status as an individual who has the right to choose his own path. However, the character squanders this right by taking on extra burdens in the pursuit of money, under the selfish belief that his becoming rich means society has achieved harmony.

A Servant of Two Masters enchanted me with its flow of laughter and satire, while Just Play It touched people with the indescribable magic of its music.

It is a play presented by Performance Workshop and features two pianists, who shared their life experiences and musical journeys through a series of cross talk and piano performances.

The play didn't offer too much dramatic intensity, but instead was replete with enjoyable sounds and visual experiences created by the pianists and a group of singers and dancers.

Mumble Jumble is another special show in the opening season and is delivered by actors of the new theater. It was a crazy collage of stories about young people's experiences and worries in modern society.

The scenes in the play didn't conform to a singular expressive method, but had distinctive styles of their own.

There was a poetic scene of people riding a train, which resembled the journey of life; meanwhile there were scenes of madness depicting how people pathetically pass their burdens to others.

Different scenes were akin to different windows on life, some of frosted glass while some were warped and distorted.

The play both alienated the audience in terms of what they saw, while resonating in terms of what they felt.

A Servant of Two Masters will be staged again on February 14, and Mumble Jumble will be performed from February 25 to 28.

Visit theatreabove.com for more information.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, Theater, Culture

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