MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER

by Wong Teng Chi
English translation by Derek Kwan
Directed by Tam Chi Chun
At Tarragon Theatre, November 15-December 17, 2017

(L-R) Jordan Cheng (Shi) and Derek Kwan (Boursicot) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Restraint is one of the virtues in this interesting 75-minute piece of musical theatre from a Macau production group, but it is also a limitation. When Derek Kwan’s Boursicot (French diplomat in Beijing) stands slightly behind Jordan Cheng’s elegant Shi Pei Pu (cross-dressing opera singer and spy), the audience can almost feel his pent-up ardour for his Chinese lover.  In a subsequent scene, it is Shi’s turn (while wearing a Chinese opera diva’s long-sleeved robe) to stand behind Boursicot, this time with his hands holding his lover to his own body in a gesture of desire, bonding, and conflict-ridden interdependency. There is no raw, raging sex scene—only the nerve ends of carnality. Their story (first presented in Toronto for Summerworks) is not that of David Henry Wang’s Broadway smash from 1992, M. Butterfly, though it takes inspiration from the predecessor, just as it alludes to Puccini’s classic Madam Butterfly without faithfully recirculating its oriental stereotype. In Puccini, Cho-cho san is a geisha, a quintessential Western paragon of Japanese women, and her suicide (after her betrayal by the American Pinkerton) is of a form conventionally associated with Japan. In Hwang’s play, the central figure is male, representing a rejection of the stereotypical Asian woman, but Gallimard, the French diplomat, who falls in love with Song Liling (the transvestite Butterfly), represents the Westerner’s desperate belief in the Oriental stereotype. Mr. Shi and His Lover elects to tells its real-life story in “an imagined space” that is a sort of prison to Shi who feels desperately alone while searching for a new ending for his ruffled, suffering lover but especially for himself. Boursicot has given up everything for him but has not found true happiness, though he claims to know what happiness is. Perhaps it is because he subscribes to Oriental stereotypes of the feminine beloved as Lotus Blossom or Oriental Beauty. Certainly, Jordan Cheng’s slender, graceful, androgynous Shi is as delicate as a flower blossom and as beautiful, and he knows how to maintain a fiction about ideal femininity. But he has an inquiring mind, and Wong Teng Chi’s fable unfolds like a love-drenched reverie in Shi’s mind and in which Boursicot is compelled to wonder if he has fallen in love first with a man and then with an impersonated woman.

There are many other tangential themes—lies, politics, history, ideal and fantasy—but they are all assimilated by notions of performance. Everything is seen in terms of performance, whether it is Shi’s ritual of making up, crossdressing, singing, or delivering monologues and dialogue. The mandarin dialogue is given English sur-titles, but sometimes the text is top-heavy with abstract concepts that seem to clash with the predominately sensuous score—a fusion of lush Chinese and Western operatic arias and Chinese folk music (sensitively rendered by Njo at the piano and Yukie Lai on percussion). The score could stand on its own, and there are plans to record and release it on a CD, with, I suggest, a booklet containing the lyrics in English. Yet I don’t want to suggest that the score steals attention from the story. It is beautiful, artful, moving, yet wonderfully controlled.

The restraint extends to the scenic, costume, and lighting design as well. The set is simply a dressing stand with mirror and opera costume and a small red rectangular carpet is flanked upstage by the two musicians. Shi and his lover wear Western suits, emblematic of cosmopolitan colonization, and the lighting is never obtrusive. The actors perform without resorting to any operatic flourishes, though the volume and modulations of Shi’s spoken text and sung lyrics give Jordan Cheng more beguiling colour and range than Derek Kwan enjoys as his perplexed, frustrated lover. Being specially trained in music, Cheng handles his solos with stunning virtuosity, sliding from high, plaintive or playful falsetto to sharp seductiveness or angry defiance. But the solo arias and spoken monologues are not enough to enhance theatricality, and the question-riddled dialogue adds an unnecessary burden to the acting. Consequently, the characters don’t come fully to life often enough, with the piece remaining more a mental drama than a fully fleshed play. I wanted more eroticism, and I wanted to know how Boursicot must have truly felt about either being duped by Shi or willingly maintaining a fiction about love and identity.

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THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA ?

By Edward Albee
Directed by Alan Dilworth
A Soulpepper Production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
November 1-18, 2017

Raquel Duffy (Stevie) and Albert Schultz (Martin) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Martin is a 50-year old architect at the peak of fame (the recent winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize), married to Stevie for twenty-two years and empathetic towards his gay son Billy. But Martin worries about memory loss and acts detached during a television interview with his oldest friend, Ross, who is really the smug embodiment of liberal hypocrisy, especially when Martin’s confession about his love relationship with a goat (the Sylvia of the title) is brought into the open early in the plot. Ross can abide adultery only so long as it does not involve bestiality. In other words, he doesn’t mind the idea of cheating on a wife, but doing it with a goat is another thing—an attitude that in itself sounds reasonable enough. But Albee isn’t writing about bestiality per se. His play seems to be about the uncontrollable nature of human sexuality and the complications that ensue from what is regarded as taboo sex by conventional society. Despite the black humour (an amalgam of savagery and anguish), the play is filled with grief and rage as it boldly investigates the confrontation between “unspeakable” desires and social norms and laws. It zeroes in on love, loss, betrayal, and its violent ending brings most of the characters down, while offering what is supposed to be a catharsis of fear and pity.

I have now seen three productions of Albee’s controversial play, starting with the Broadway original starring Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman (the best version I have ever experienced), but each time the play grows more dissatisfying to me. Part of the reason is that each successive production seems to lack the power and finesse of the first, but an equally strong reason is Albee’s own muddled text that creates an unresolved problem of emotional incredibility and arch didactic self-consciousness. In an essay in 2004, Albee revealed he had set out to write a play about “intertwined matters—the limits of our tolerance of the behavior of others than ourselves, especially when such behavior ran counter to what we believed to be acceptable social and moral boundaries, and our unwillingness to imagine ourselves behaving in such an unacceptable fashion—in other words our refusal to imagine ourselves subject to circumstances outside our own comfort zones.”  His play would construct itself “as an idea, informing me that that’s what I intended to write about” in a kind of “unconscious didacticism.” Well, nothing was really “unconscious” because what eventually resulted, after an aborted first attempt with a totally different plot, context, and set of characters, is what we now have as The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? that (as its title implies) mixes a bit of Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, black humour, and Albee’s own idiosyncratic epistemological inquiry that mixes absurdist farce with dark pain. There is much word-play about bestiality (allusions to a feed store, a stall with bedding, cruising livestock, and a possible joke about Billy the kid) as if Albee had suddenly turned into a raunchy stand-up comedian, but such humour seems calculated as if the playwright is anticipating cynical audience jokes and is intent on beating the audience to the punch.

In ancient Greek, tragos meant “goat song,” and there was inevitably a scapegoat. Albee works in every allusion to classical Greek tragedy he can think of—from references to the Eumenides and sacrifice—as well as forced and unconvincing phrases (“tragic mouth,” for example) and an apocalyptic finale of destruction and self-destruction. Then there is the Shakespearean reference to the pastoral song from Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which beautiful Silvia is silent—just as the goat in Albee’s play, with Martin’s representing her swain (urban rather than rural in this case). But this creates a fundamental, unresolved problem. Albee is writing provocatively, pushing a text as far as he can go deliberately, but more from the head than from the heart, and actors have to find a way to reconcile both head and heart without appearing to be theatrical abstractions or allegorical figures.

It is a difficult proposition that Alan Dilworth’s production fails to present in an emotionally credible way. He and designer Lorenzo Savoini impose a large scale with the set: clean but rigid straight lines, high walls and roof, austere chairs and white table. But classical tragedy isn’t achieved by this type of scale: characters themselves have to be enlarged as if some invisible force were lifting them out of a mere human scale and propelling them towards a destructive climax. Savoini’s design satirizes white suburbia (as in his costumes that seem to suggest the 50s or 60s) but is largely an empty space that the cast does not always populate with believable or affecting characters. Instead of becoming a dark, painful void, the space remains just a space, with the white living room table remaining just that rather than an altar of sacrifice, even when Stevie dumps the slaughtered goat on it. Dilworth also stresses literalism more than he does the figurative for the murdered goat is shown almost fully rather than concealed in a bloody body bag the way it was in the original Broadway production.

But, ultimately, a lot depends on the acting. The figure of Ross is created to score didactic points about hypocrisy and betrayal rather than to be a fully fleshed friend, and Derek Boyes’s performance is, as usual, life-sized but is not allowed much intrinsic weight. As the gay, angst-ridden son, Paolo Santaluccia is almost creepily rigid and weepy, his tight fists usually closed, his voice and acting unable to grow beyond their first rudimentary levels of signification. Raquel Duffy has her best dramatic role to date as Stevie, the betrayed wife, but though she looks beautiful in high heels and elegant dress, and runs the gamut from mocking humour to rage, disillusionment, and grief, she does not have enough scale and gives away too much at the beginning, thereby failing to grow in vulnerability and terrifying revenge. When she smashes art objects in a venting of rage, she merely tears her passion to tatters, rather than incarnating deep victimhood. Her wails of grief and rage are howls that don’t seem to issue viscerally. They are enactments of loud fury. Albert Schultz is physically large in height and weight, but he enacts Martin externally, his defensive bent-over posture repeated too often. His final explosion is far less moving than is his warm understanding of his anguished son. In other words, I didn’t feel viscerally moved much at the end of the production, so it seemed as if the poor goat had died for little.