Jul 10, 2015

Beyond Chinatown:
Behind the Mask, A Play Leads Yangtze Repertory Theatre’s New Direction

Smartly adapted from the 1999 play 《眉间尺 》(The Swordsmith’s Son: A Revenge Play) by award-winning Chinese playwrights Huang Weiruo (黄维若) and Feng Baiming (冯柏铭), Behind the Mask, A Play is the first production by the twenty-three year old Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America under the new triumvirate leadership of KK Wong (Co-Artistic Director), Wayne Chang (Co-Artistic Director), and Haowen Wang (Executive Director) who took the helm following the retirement of founder Joanna Chan last year. Looking to focus more on contemporary theater and performance, Wang explained that the company found Behind the Mask was a “fitting play to the lineage of what we produce as a company, but also brings fresh elements for the transition.”

In addition to being a bridge for Yangtze, this production, adapted and directed by Chongren Fan, connects a cultural heritage and the present and is an exciting outreach to audiences who may not be familiar with contemporary Chinese theater. Ann Firestone Ungar appends this historical note to her excellent Front Row Center review:

This play appears to belong to a movement in Chinese experimental drama in the 1990’s. A critic named Rossella Ferrari in her book Pop goes the avant-garde – Experimental Theatre in Contemporary China tells us “A post-modernist proclivity for hybridization, travesty and burlesque subversion of tradition triggered fresh approaches to adaptation and considerably altered the ways in which classic texts were produced on the contemporary stage.”

Performed in Mandarin with Chinese and English supertitles (awkwardly) projected to the left of the stage, Behind the Mask weaves the well-known Chinese story of mythical hero Mei Jian Chi with the story of a struggling theater troupe in modern China. Composer Xiren Wang, whose evocative original score immerses and guides the audience through the play’s shifting settings and tones, describes this play within a play: “There is melodrama that evokes epic brushes of fantasy, there is realism that is steeped in a cold melancholy, there is comedy, in between layers of madness, and then there is all that space in between.”

In the Mei Jian Chi story (which seems it could be a product of collaboration between Shakespeare, Quentin Tarantino, and Tim Burton), the bored and sadistic King of Chu (played with deft insight into psychology by Esther Chen) orders the death of a master swordmaker whose final request to his wife is for their son, Mei Jian Chi, to avenge his death when he turns 16. After much introspection and with uncertain resolve, Mei Jian Chi (played by Xiao Quan suggesting hidden potential) carries out this duty when it comes time but stumbles in his attempt to assassinate the king. He is rescued from the palace by a mysterious man in black (Neil Redfield with impressive Mandarin) — a professional killer who himself is eager for his chance at the king and later offers his services with a bizarre scheme involving decapitating Mei Jian Chi and bringing his head as a plaything for the monarch. A self-pitying Mei Jian Chi agrees to the plan and cuts off his own head. The man in black presents the head to a delighted king, but it’s only when the man in black beheads him that the king finds release from his ennui. The king convinces his regicide to free himself from the burden of having a body, and the drama takes a turn for the grotesque as it ends with the three heads of Mei Jian Chi, the king, and the man in black cheerfully singing and bobbing in a cauldron.

Interspersed in this fantastic tale are scenes from the present day in which a theater company is rehearsing the Mei Jian Chi play. An earnest and persevering troupe director (Shan Y. Chuang with caring sincerity rather than frazzle) faces the usual theater drama of mercurial, dissatisfied, and argumentative actors. There are bumps, but to the satisfaction of the director, the production comes together as the actors understand their roles and commit to the play.

The two seemingly disparate stories are connected through themes of personal character, doubt, expectations, aspirations, and authority and through the symbol of the mask. Early on, the Director says, “In this play, whoever wears a mask means he is alive. Those who are without a mask represents the dead, decapitated heads or ghosts.” She is talking to her company about the fictional production of Mei Jian Chi, but also to the audience. What does it mean to be alive if we hide behind an illusion?

In a brilliant addition to the original text by director Fan and the artistic team that brings to the forefront the universal “basic human struggles” in the stories, the members of the fictional troupe at various times take their masks off, break from the scene and into moving monologues about themselves that, for some, also reveal the real actor. “The monologues are pretty close to me, especially the second one, right after the peak of the Director’s emotions,” Chuang intimated to us.

In the original play, the characters are older, in their late forties and fifties, but director Fan adapted the story to suit the talents of a younger cast which, true to Yangtze’s long history of working with actors from different ethnic backgrounds, included three non-Asian actors who seamlessly integrated with the rest of the Mandarin-speaking Asian cast.

While Fan’s direction and creative insight shaped Behind the Mask, he encouraged collaboration and the actors made important contributions that give life to the play. “A democratic rehearsal room gives every artist involved a chance to shine, and shine organically,” he opined. Shan Chuang, who is also a dancer, choreographed a sword fighting scene. In an unusual process for a composer, Xiren Wang was closely involved with rehearsals, observing as the script was brought to life. Cast member Viola Wang transcribed a melody Fan made for the closing scene and Shan Chuang and cast member Chien-Lun Lee developed harmonies. Fan said of his King Chu, “Esther brought so many ideas to the table. She found a physical language for King Chu which was organically tied to our story and the character.”

Their contributions do not go unthanked in the play. Dissatisfied with the original play’s fatalistic ending, Fan wanted to conclude the play with the Yangtze actors on stage. Following the abrupt power outage, all cast members appear on stage, without masks, in an uplifting sing-song coda that contrasts the dark comedy of singing heads.

With a runtime of just over an hour, Behind the Mask is a brisk telling of a dense story. If this play is representative of Yangtze’s capabilities and direction, we’ll see you at future productions.

Behind the Mask, a Play :

Friday, July 10, 7:30 PM
Saturday, July 11, 7:30 PM
Sunday, July 12, 2:30 PM
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street)
$25/General Admission; $20/Seniors and Students
$10 off General Admission with discount code “yangtze”
Tickets available here

Random notes:

  • Sit towards the back of the theater so you can more easily shift your view between the supertitles and the stage.
  • Chinese speakers will appreciate some of the classical language in the script.
  • For the scene with the mice in Mei Jian Chi’s home, discovered the obscure genre of “mouse sounds. She spent half the day listening to recordings of rodent sounds, then sampling them, and building tracks for the scene.
  • Don’t miss Shan Chuang’s lightning fast flying kick in one of the fight scenes.
  • Designed by KK Wong, the fictional company’s rehearsal space is decorated with bric-a-brac and believably looks lived in, but the set completely disappears while the Mei Jian Chi story is being acted.