Performance Review of SilkRoad 2003: An Experience in Chinese Theatre presents
by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.
It has been several days since I saw the Taipei Li-yuan Chinese Opera Troupe’s touring production of The Monkey King Makes Havoc in Heaven, and I am still trying to come up with a way to sensibly write about the experience. Though superlatives like "awesome" and "superb" come to mind, that doesn’t say much about the performance.
I am no stranger to Chinese opera; I have seen some jinqu (“Peking Opera”) and kunqu before. Jinqu is what people who normally think of Chinese opera at all are likely to think of first. Introduced to China’s northern capital in the 18th century (hence the nickname “Peking (or Beijing) opera”), jinqu is characterized by brilliant costumes and makeup, many supernumeraries on stage, lots of acrobatics and martial arts-type movement in battle scenes. The music is carefully choreographed to the actors’ movements and the singing is frankly, VERY loud. Theorists who wrote about “total theatre” in the 1970’s could well have been thinking of jinqu, if, in fact, they knew anything about it at all.
Actually, I have always thought of the Monkey King in terms of jinqu. In the late 1970’s, in the wake of Nixon’s visit to China, the Performing Arts Tour of the People’s Republic of China chugged across the American landscape, featuring musicians, dancers and singers. Incredibly, they showed up at Northrop Hall at the University of Minnesota while I was a student there. Among all my theatrical colleagues, I was the only one honestly thrilled at this event (though I talked a friend into going with me). We sat, practically by ourselves, in the massive balcony of the cavernous hall, which was, inexplicably, only about half full.
The jinqu performers, many of whom had been unable to perform at all during China’s repressive Cultural Revolution, packed so much energy into their performances of selected scenes from famous operas, it was as if the roof was going to lift off of the auditorium. One of the scenes was the "peach banquet" from the Monkey King. A lone performer (whose name, alas, now escapes me) literally destroyed a long table set for a banquet of Immortals. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I remember the fruit as being real, and the actor being covered with it, as he gleefully ate, drank and trashed the place settings. The audience, small as it was, had a wildly good time, with the enthusiasm of a great number of inner children taking vicarious part in the ultimate cosmic food fight.
Kunqu has a very different history. Kunqu is an older form, dating back some 400 years or more. Troupes were usually small and attached to rich households. The music and movement were much more elegant, created for small audiences who knew about aesthetics and had refined taste. Until recently, there was not much interest in kunqu here or in China, for that matter. Since the 1980’s or so, there has been a revival of interest both here and abroad (New York City has a semi-professional kunqu group).
I therefore had some mixed feelings about this production of Monkey King, done in kunqu style. I remembered the 1970's touring performance as being a wild, barely controlled free-for-all. How would the Monkey King, with its spectacular banquet and battle scenes, lend itself to refined kunqu? I need not have worried. The elegance of kunqu style replaced the wild spectacle of jinqu with a wonderful humanizing quality. Instead of hordes of supernumeraries in the battle scenes, there were eight or ten people (some of whom were quick-change artists, switching from monkey costumes to soldiers and grooms, and vice versa). The acrobatics and martial arts movement were just as skillful, and in a way, even better for being on a smaller scale. I found myself able to pick out a favorite soldier or monkey, and being able to follow them through the performance, rather than losing an individual in a sea of rapid-fire movement.
Of course, the main feature of the Monkey King is the character himself, played with ease by 53-year-old Master Bao-Chun Li. Li vaulted on chairs and tables, handled a variety of weapons, danced, sang and moved with catlike (or I should say monkeylike) grace.
From the beginning, the Monkey King strikes us not so much arrogant as someone confident in his abilities who does not suffer fools gladly. He is a lot like a more sensible Hanuman, the monkey warrior king who aided Rama in his conquest of Lanka in the Ramayana. In fact, the Monkey King’s more formal costumes were trimmed with white fur, making me wonder if there really was a connection. Where the Ramayana’s Hanuman is characterized by his big heart and intense devotion to Rama, this Monkey King is both proud and shrewd. The fools he has to suffer are the Heavenly Immortals, who worry that his extraordinary abilities on the battlefield will threaten their rule. In a preemptive strike, they send him an invitation to visit the Heavenly Stables. When he arrives, the Monkey King finds out he is not an honored guest. He is actually to take over the care of the stables, feeding the horses and mucking out their stalls. Deeply angered, he takes his vengeance on the Horse King and his minions, and returns to earth. The gods realize he must be destroyed, rather than just humiliated, so they invite him to a banquet where the peaches of immortality are to be served. Of course, he is not to be a guest here either; the idea is to trap and destroy him. Being cautious, he arrives early and finds out he is not on the guest list. Figuring there will be trouble for him, but unable to resist taking vengeance, he breaks into the banquet room and eats his fill of the peaches of immortality, washed down with immortal-size quaffs of heavenly wine.
Horrified, the gods mount their forces, including the Horse King, the River God, and other Immortals, and prepare to engage the Monkey King in battle with the intent to destroy him once and for all (the fact that he is now an Immortal like themselves, having eaten the peaches, does not enter into their logic somehow).
There follows a series of battles and duels, as the Monkey King takes on soldiers and Immortals, in singles and groups with swords, sticks and clubs. This scene takes nearly half of the approximately two-hour running time, but it is worth every moment. Individual performers had an opportunity to shine in this portion, but unfortunately, I cannot name them, because they are uncredited in the program. This is really too bad, as there were many fine performers; I will have to content myself with saying that they were all wonderful.
For those who specifically enjoy kunqu, or someone who wants a proper introduction to the genre, this is not the performance to see. The Monkey King gives the music short shrift as the emphasis is very much on action, and the rapid, rhythmic percussion that accompanies it. Only one scene, where the Immortals’ field general exhorts his heavenly troops to battle, features much in the way of singing.
For others who, like myself, have an interest in acrobatics and martial arts choreography, the Monkey King is ideal, as there is plenty of both. From the first scene, members of the Monkey King's troupe playfully cavort together and act out scenes of battles. Later, they drill with sticks in preparation for fighting. The Immortals' troupe of soldiers (there are really only about six of them) are highly skilled in acrobatics and martial arts movement. A pair of maids with butterfly swords (yes, there are women in kunqu) are no match for the Monkey King, but then, neither are the Immortals. The fight scenes combined elements of slapstick comedy with acrobatics and real martial skill. Fists, feet, bodies and weapons fly through the air. In this scaled-down context, individual minor characters stood out, such as the soldier who did continuous backflips across the stage (he became all the more endearing to the audience when we realized that the effort left him quite dizzy). Through it all, Bao-Chun Li ducks, swoops and whirls with seeming abandon, but with perfect timing. He is onstage almost continuously for the entire scene, striking, kicking, leaping and parrying, punctuated by the occasional full split, all the while flashing a mischievous grin at the audience. The curtain call lasted a full ten minutes and felt like a more exuberant (if that is possible) extension of the battle scene, as though neither the performers, and certainly not the audience, ever wanted the show to end. Everyone was elated and exhausted.
I found myself leaving the theatre trying to think of even one person I knew in his 50’s who could execute even a quarter of the moves undertaken by Master Li in this performance. I began to wonder if Chinese opera performers are born or made, or some combination of both. From what little I know of Chinese opera, training begins early and lasts throughout a performer's lifetime (the performers who cannot continue to do acrobatic or martial roles probably sing more as they get older, instead).
Twenty years later, I was able to meet the actor who played the Monkey King in the PRC Performing Arts Tour. In his seventies by then and semi-retired (having also immigrated from China), he could still do a sweeping kick up to head level. He also had an ego the size of Montana, but, in this case, it was richly deserved. He was not just a star actor of impeccable skill. He was a survivor of the tumultuous arts climate in modern China, from which not everyone emerged unscathed. That made him a hero, in my book.
Readers who study Chinese martial arts, or who enjoy Hong Kong martial arts-action films, as well as more mainstream offerings like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, owe it to themselves to see a Chinese opera performance if one comes their way. Not only are superb acrobatic and martial skills on display, live, but you get a chance to see where all that precision fight choreography came from in the first place.
More information on SilkRoad 2003 events can be seen at www.silkroad2003.com