A family feast

By Qi Xijia Source:Global Times Published: 2016/6/28 18:18:00

The Big Meal serves quick bites over generations

A Chinese version of The Big Meal, a play written by Dan LeFranc opening Thursday, is an intense and informative feast of entertainment, where the story of five generations unravel and are whipped through like the settings' servings of everyday food in 54 acts within 100 minutes.

The sprightly play challenges the audience with its unique form. In the opening scenes, we see the meeting between Li Lin and Ai Li, played by Zhang Yunqing and Li Zixi, respectively, in a restaurant where Ai Li works.

Ding! The next minute they're on their first date. Following some romantic music, they sweep into a high-end restaurant, exchanging affectionate compliments and sweet talk. Zap! They snap, fight and break up.

Together these short scenes interweave a common love story of young people. And all this happens in less than 12 minutes of stage time, without dimming the lights or moving props.

"If you go to the toilet in the middle of the play, you won't be able to catch up," warned Ma Yue, the director.

The play condenses generations of family life, stemming from the union between Li and Ai. A total of 26 characters are played by a wonderful cast of eight.

"This means one actor plays many roles, and different stages of one role are played by many actors, which is quite challenging for the actors," Ma told the Global Times.

As Li and Ai step into their middle years, Xu Zidong and Chen Jiaoying take up the roles and carry on.

When the characters grow old, they are replayed by acclaimed actors Yang Baolong and Song Yining, the latter being famous for her dubbing of the character Carol Seaver in the 1980s hit TV series Growing Pains. The cast also features two lovely kids.

Two scenes from a rehearsal of the play

Old family members die. New generations are added. All the changes are indicated by details in costume and setting, shown to all by the actors onstage under the spotlight.

"We want to show the gliding of time in a seamless way. That's why there is no intermission. We play through till the end," Ma said.

So one minute an actor plays the father, the next minute the actor plays his son, and then his son's son. Actors have to step into different roles in a flash, without a full costume change to help them.

Though actors have to try their best differentiating their roles to tell the audience who's who,  Ma believed that there are some similarities shared and carried down through generations.

"There is common ground in the family blood. You may grow up disliking some characteristics of your mother, but in the end you are more similar to her than you thought. The universal image of the continuity of experience and the truths about human life is what we want to explore in the play. It's a universal topic in which audiences of different ages can relate to," the director said.

On the other hand, to put the characters together, different actors have to find the chemistry and adapt to each other.

In one rehearsal, Li Zixi, playing the young Ai Li, was unsure how she should portray the character in the opening scene where she meets Li Lin.

Having just broken up with her ex-boyfriend, Ai vents her anger by wiping the desk forcefully. The actress deliberated whether her Ai Li should be grumpy or polite when Li Lin accosts her. Different thoughts came across her through several takes.

"The middle-aged Ai Li played by Chen Jiaoying seems to be gentle, while the elderly Ai Li played by Song Yining is very stiff," Li said.

"That is the charm of live art. It keeps changing, and you never know the outcome until the last minute," Ma said.

A poster for The Big Meal Photos: Courtesy of the play's production team

Another challenge comes from the snappy overlapping dialogue during the family gatherings. Actors have to give cues while remembering their own during act changes.

The original dialogue written by LeFranc captures the tumultuous, sometimes subtly antagonistic tenor that we all have experienced. After a while, you begin to feel you're watching a story of your own.

For this Chinese version, the director spent two years translating and polishing the script, trying to make it more down-to-earth for a domestic audience. It will be also the first time that the play is put on to stage in Asia.

Date: From Thursday to July 17

Venue: Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre


Address: 288 Anfu Road 安福路288号

Tickets: 150 yuan ($22.59) to 300 yuan

Call 6473-0123 for details

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, Theater, Culture

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