The Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America, founded in 1992 has as its mission to produce works for and by Asian artists primarily to dramatize the forces of Chinese history. Their current production Behind the Mask, presented at Theater for the New City, is adapted from The Swordsman’s Son, A Revenge Play by Chinese authors Feng BaiMing and Huang WeiRuo. The play is performed in Mandarin with English subtitles.
Behind the Mask is a play within a play that jumps from the present to the past and vies back and forth in its action, reflecting and intertwining cultural themes from past to present. The setting of the framing present is a rehearsal space in modern China. The play opens on a director and a group of errant, disinterested and down-on-their luck actors who are part of a repertory company which has not performed or rehearsed much in the last few months. The ill paid actors have been called to rehearse a play based on the myth of everyman hero Mei Jian Chi.
The actors provide humor when they are being themselves in between rehearsing their characters and portraying events that take place in the ancient Kingdom of Chu. It is during this break from acting their roles that their personal, human feelings and lives are made manifest: they argue with each other, are easily distracted, share their feelings with the audience, and continually challenge the director, change their lines, and make trouble for the “by the book” director, who cannot help but be discouraged. Especially in the beginning, the director (in an authentic and real portrayal by Shan Y. Chuang), questions her motives for wanting to work in live theater with this company which has grown less viable as former members, “better” actors, have left for lucrative gigs in TV and elsewhere.
In the modern segment which frames the events in the ancient kingdom and reflects the themes that are ancient and current, we understand the difficulties associated with the survival of live theater though it is perhaps the most rewarding of the entertainment arts. Once the actors are in the heat of rehearsing, they enjoy being engaged in the excitement of live performance. They anticipate the thrill of immediacy of communication in that darkened space out over the footlights into the minds of the audience.
Of course, the additional humor is that The Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America is sharing the irony of portraying an acting company. As a result the ensemble cast are perhaps “closer to home” in this production than in others they have presented, a twist not lost on the audience. They do work well together and the three Western actors who speak in Mandarin Chinese will definitely impress Western audiences.
When the actors put on masks they and we are transported to China’s past in the Kingdom of Chu in southern China. All semblance of their former personalities vanish. In this ancient kingdom bloodletting was common because the King who dominated and oppressed his people operated by the mantra of love and blood.
The roles the actors portray are far from the present and, as such, their acting becomes distinctly mannered. For example, the actress who plays King Chu, the wealthy, bored royal who has everything and yet cannot “get out of his own way” to enjoy life until he is dead, uses broad gestures and ringing loud laughter that is obviously artificial. At the outset the dissonance the actors experience at playing characters not readily accessible is apparent.
The actress who portrays King Chu (Esther Chen is equally loathsome in her arrogance as the King and argumentativeness to the director whom she challenges), can’t understand how the king could be so bored with his luxurious existence. However, as the play progresses, we note the development of the actors from their initial attempts fumbling to sense who these ancient characters are to their gradual familiarity as they become used to “walking around in their characters’ skins.” The break between their donning the characters from the past and dropping the caricatures to be “themselves” in the present, gradually becomes a seamless transition. This is a testament to the skill of the actors and the perceptive guidance by director Chongren Fan.
As the ancient story of the Chu Kingdom is portrayed, the chorus effectively recites and sometimes sings. The chorus switches from the dilatory, haphazard, complaining actors of the present to the roles rounding out the storyline of King Chu and the swordmaker’s revenge. For example, they are the mice who live with the hero Mei Jian Chi and starve because the family is poor. They are the servants in the court of King Chu. The chorus effectively reaffirms key tropes and offers lyrical commentary and humor.
When the actors become involved recounting the ancient story, we become involved with everyman Mei Jian Chi (Xiao Quan is shy and withdrawn to a fault), the swordmaker’s son who lays down his life to avenge his father’s death and secure justice for the oppressed kingdom of Chu. Though Mei Jian Chi does not lift a finger against the arrogant, bloodthirsty, dictator King Chu, his actions bring about King Chu’s demise. How he effects the King’s death and how he solves his ethical dilemma about obtaining revenge without murdering King Chu is intriguing and full of ironic twists.
In Mei Jian Chi’s cowardice and fearfulness, we see he is like us, an everyman. Yet, he confronts his fear in an unusual way and accepts his destiny. Thus, one parallel of the ancient story and the troubles of the modern troupe of actors becomes clarified. Mei Jian Chi is destined to play his part in history. Likewise, the actors are subjected to the parts to which they must play to make enough money to get to the next day at this time and place in China. Unless one is on the level of a king, then one has little control over his or her selection of their role in life. Indeed, the play affirms that life in China still is a matter of acceptance. One must “roll with the punches” and somehow make the best of it counting on a little luck to get to a better place.
The play within a play suggests this overriding theme. When one achieves success, fame, wealth, or the kingdom, without a sense of purpose to help others, it is easy to become bored with life and addicted to thrill seeking. In King Chu’s example, killing and murdering were a palliative to ameliorate his great boredom with his existence. As the assassin who is intimate with delivering death suggests, once one has achieved what one wants, there is nothing to look forward to. It’s all about the journey. And perhaps in the long run it may be better not to get to your goal after all.
Behind the Mask is an intriguing view of China’s past and present. It reveals how the vehicle of drama can preserve and innovate, and meld history with currency. The production uplifts ancient cultural myths, distills the key principles, and incorporates these ideas with those of popular culture using humor. This premiere seen for the first time in the U.S. and performed in Mandarin Chinese is possible in the hands of an adept director, who has cleverly adapted the script and inspired the skilled actors. Coupled with the music and lighting design, the Behind the Mask works. The play runs at Theater for the New City until July 12th.[amazon template=iframe image&asin= 0823006379]