“They say the world is old. I know it; just the same/Like any child it needs to be diverted with a game.” La Fontaine’s apothegm still holds true. Audiences—the people of the world as assembled in a theater-are always infants. They need diversion, and they need it all the time, most particularly if you plan to teach them anything. It would be a mistake, though, to assume automatically that, being childlike, audiences are stupid, which is never true. Children are like Americans: not stupid, simply uninformed. Give them all the facts and they will catch on soon enough. But before, during, and after that time, they need diversion. Hard on the heels of Xanadu‘s arrival on Broadway, this year’s Lincoln Center Festival opened with a big dollop of theatrical diversionary activity from the opposite side of the globe. They make an interesting contrast.
By far the more interesting—and the more diverting to me personally—was the double bill of excerpts from traditional Chinese operas presented by the Contemporary Legend Theatre of Taiwan, headed by Wu Hsing-Kuo and Wei Hai-Ming. The latter, who is billed as the company’s dramaturg, played the female central roles in the two pieces, The Tipsy Concubine and Farewell My Concubine. (Wu, the artistic director, played the king who must say the second piece’s titular farewell.) This certainly shows a different view of dramaturgy: If I heard that any American dramaturg of my acquaintance was scheduled to perform the harrowingly difficult sword dance that is the high point of Farewell My Concubine, I’d put as much distance as possible between myself and that theater. Beijing opera dramaturgy must have more to do with finger dexterity than ours, where manual skills are largely focused on the computer keyboard.
Not being expert in this field, I don’t know what constitutes the “contemporary” aspect of Legend Theatre’s work. The operas themselves date from the Ming dynasty, which ended in 1644. The first is set during the Tang era, circa 720 A.D., the second around 900 years before that. The imperial concubine Yang Guifei notoriously had the Tang emperor Xuan-zong wrapped around her little finger, but The Tipsy Concubine catches her at a low point. The emperor has gone off to spend the night with one of his 3,000 other concubines; abetted by the court eunuchs and her ladies-in-waiting, Yang Guifei consoles herself by getting drunk, alternately reeling in elation from the wine and bewailing or ranting over her lover’s desertion. With its many arias for the title character, covering a subtly shifting range of moods, interrupted by comic byplay with the scheming eunuchs, the scene became famous in the West as a showpiece for the 20th century’s most famous Chinese actor, Mei Lan-Fang (18941961), who toured everywhere and apparently influenced everybody: Brecht, Stanislavsky, Stark Young, and Bernard Shaw were all enthusiastic admirers.
Mei was noted for the delicacy of his style, an intriguing notion in the context of this piece full of low-comic antiques and emotional extremes. But then, Beijing opera offers a broader range of techniques than we’re used to in the West: Imagine the high-tragic formality of traditional opera seria or ballet, dialogues played with psychological realism, numbers staged with the showbiz canniness of old-time musical comedy, and the ritualized comic exaggeration we associate with vaudeville routines, all as part of a single scene’s stylistic continuum. And, as in some of those old traditions, the Chinese audience isn’t reticent to applaud a particularly good move, nor the star to repeat it at their request. (Shaw’s comment about the 19th-century opera star Adelina Patti “coming out of a stage faint to acknowledge the applause it evokes” may be pertinent.) Though always grounded in real feeling, this is not a realistic form, and the audience delights in that fact—a truth which becomes even more apparent in the evening’s second half, Farewell My Concubine. Here you have both stars alternating spacious emotional solos with big, meaty scenes together. Framed in battle sequences that look like choreographed explosions of military flags and spears, the tender feelings of the king who has lost his fight and the consort who kills herself rather than outlive him become cues for two contrasting kinds of personal flamboyance, which Wu and Wei embody stunningly.
Xanadu‘s flamboyance, in contrast, has a jerry-built quality, displaying its bursts of amusement over a near-total emotional void. It’s a big, gooey dessert without any nutritional value, and how well you enjoy it may depend on how much time you like to spend gorging on big, gooey desserts: 10 or 15 minutes is about my limit, and Xanadu runs 90. Buried deep down in the sundae dish, you can find a sort of plastic replica of the Orpheus myth, a minimal structure to support the big scoops of sugar and cholesterol. All through the goo, librettist Douglas Carter Beane, whose idea it was to adapt the notoriously lamebrained 1980 movie, has layered mildly spicy wafers of sarcasm and put-on, offering an intermittently crunchy texture to vary the slurping sound as the audience laps the stuff up. Christopher Ashley’s cast is highly skilled: Kerry Butler, who can maintain her balance, pitch, and adorableness even while wearing one sock, one roller skate, and an intentionally dreadful Aussie accent, ranks as a star in my book. Cheyenne Jackson, even on skates, looks like definite leading-man material, while Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, as a pair of spiteful villainesses, should probably be hired to disrupt almost every standard musical. (Just think what improvement they could wreak on Les Miz.)
That Butler is playing Clio, the ancient Greek Muse of history; that the mortal (Jackson) with whom said Muse falls in love is a 1970s L.A. sidewalk artist who dreams of opening a roller disco; and that the villainesses are two jealous sister Muses who rat on her to Zeus—none of this need worry you, even in its idiocy and incoherence. Posters on theater chat sites may proclaim it as the end of the world and the death of the American musical, but Western culture has always cherished a streak of theatrical inanity like this, running wider or narrower according to the times. We live in lousy times, that’s all. The week I saw Xanadu, I’d been reading a collection of late 18th-century after—pieces, the silly diversions theaters put on following Hamlet or The School for Scandal in the pre-television era, when people expected an evening at the playhouse to be a long one. A few of the writers had some wit, but mostly the scripts were far stupider than Xanadu, and not nearly as amusing. Of course, you got Hamlet for your money too, but the evils of capitalist distribution are not a drama critic’s concern, though it’s worth noting that Marxism, like other movements toward violent revolution, arose just when the theater was at its most trivial, concentrating its efforts almost wholly on diversion. More on this point, and on Robert Wilson’s Comédie-Française staging of La Fontaine’s Fables, next week.