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Experimental Drama Comes of Age:
Meng Jinghui's new production plays to packed houses

by Christopher Barden


New drama Rhinoceros in Love features singing, satire, a drooping clock-shaped card table, a huge eye, a famous guitar-playing, love-song-crooning actor, and the next Audrey Hepburn jumping rope while she rejects a man¹s honest, stubborn, no-holds barred love at the end of the world.

On a rainy weekday afternoon, on the partially-lit stage of the China Youth Art Theater's black-box theater, a group of actors and actresses, several musicians, a playwright and a director are doing something almost unheard of in the history of modern Chinese drama: more than a month after the play's opening, the cast and creators of Rhinoceros in Love are still rehearsing.

Meng Jinghui, the energetic 32-old director with wavy shoulder-length hair, listens as his former classmate film star Guo Tao (To Live) argues about revisions in the stage direction for the play¹s penultimate scene.

"I knock her unconscious," says the now shirtless Guo. (The theater's air-conditioning won't come on until shortly before the audience arrives.) "She falls and I catch her, throw her over my shoulder and carry her to the chair," he says, stomping across the stage, reenacting a scene he¹s already performed several dozen times.

Meng nods his head (as if to say, I'd like to agree with you, but I think you're mistaken), digs his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and lightly kicks the blue stage. "So," Meng says, looking upstage, past a simple iron-framed bed that sits inexplicably next to a 20-foot-high eyeball, "you're going to tie her up over there, or at the chair?" "Well, I was thinking it would make more sense if we did it this way," Guo says, speaking quickly and with the authority of a committed actor who¹s famous because he's good. "Hey, where's the lighting crew? We need the lighting crew to see how this will look." As Guo and Meng square off against each other like avant-garde gunslingers, between them on the blue canvas stage sits a slight, beautiful, unassuming young actress in a plain floral dress. She is Wu Yue, a recent graduate of the Shanghai Drama Academy, who rocketed to overnight stardom with her role in 1997's hit TV series A Time of Peace, playing opposite You Yong and Zhang Fengyi.

Wu Yue sits quietly, attentively aloof. She manages to soak up most of the light in the near-empty theater, and I feel quite certain she could be the next Audrey Hepburn. As Meng and Guo choreograph the mechanics of how to knock out and tie up her character, Wu gazes toward a prop at one corner of the stage‹an oversized, abstract Dali-esque clock which spills languidly toward the audience and serves as a cardtable during the play. She seems to be existing in the kind of time marked by the clock, as she listens to Guo and Meng dissecting the scene. Wu Yue is a student of the theater. She has already earned more money in films and TV than a lifetime of theater could afford, but she¹s experienced premature celebrity and has returned to the theater to continue learning her craft.

Meanwhile, in the first row, supporting actresses Li Mei and Yang Ting rush up to Rhinoceros' playwright, Liao Yimei, trying out new lines for a scene which pokes fun at TV representations of love. As Li Mei rattles off a limerick-like blur of lines, Liao shows little reaction as another cast member, seated nearby, guffaws, then blurts out, "What the hell was that? Those lines don't even rhyme! And they're definitely not funny!" Li Mei goes back to her mental drawing board, and within five minutes is throwing more ideas at the patient playwright, who is dividing her attention between Li Mei¹s antics and a just-delivered telegram.

This is no ordinary rehearsal. Several major scenes and large chunks of dialogue are being reworked for a play already halfway through its run. Other scenes and bits have been undergoing daily transformation and tinkering since the play¹s first performance in early June. This is a work-in-progress.

By the time I leave the theater, the sound and lighting technicians have wandered in and are tinkering with their equipment. The director and his two stars still haven't figured out the newly revised knock-me-out-tie-me-up action. The sprightly Li Mei has just improvised another limerick which she is energetically pitching to Liao‹with no apparent success. But no one looks particularly anxious. Just rewriting some scenes, changing dozens of lines of dialogue, completely re-blocking one of the play's most important visual metaphors. The set designer just realized that one of the show's prop chairs has a broken leg. No one's eaten dinner yet. And the night¹s performance begins in just over two hours.
No big deal.

Love is a candle which gives you light, and in a brief wind is extinguished.
Love is a bird in flight, adorning the sky‹at the weather¹s first turn, away it flies. Love is a fresh flower, sweet and touching, withering promptly at the dawn of May. Love is a rainbow, profuse and magnificent, a momentary hoax, evaporated into nothing by the sun.
Love is so beautiful, and felled by the gentlest blow.
Love is so beautiful, and felled by the gentlest blow.
³Material Age² from Rhinoceros in Love.

Director Meng Jinghui is not only breaking a decades-old tradition in which Chinese theater directors bid adieu to their productions immediately after the show's premiere. He is also demanding‹and getting‹from his actors and writer far more than one would reasonably expect in an unforgiving, rigorous art form that currently pays approximately what one could make digging a shallow ditch. In a very real sense, Meng Jinghui and his talented, artistically uncompromising collaborators, are reinventing modern Chinese drama. And their brand of reinvention is what, for lack of a better word, they choose to call "experimental theater."

The Opposite of What We Are Not

In the early 1990s, when people asked Meng Jinghui what he and his fellow dramatic upstarts meant by "experimental drama," the young director and recent graduate of the Central Drama Academy would reply, "I don't really know!" But he certainly knew what it wasn't. "We wanted to do something different from the state-run theaters, our teachers at the dram academy, and the Party propaganda that¹s encouraged by the Ministry of Culture. We wanted to create something new, something that didn't exist."

"At the time," says Meng, "we were trying to find a new name to define what we were trying to do. So we decided on 'experimental.' This derived in part from the foreign concept of experimental, but more importantly it meant a new kind of drama to express ourselves in a manner that truly belonged to us."

When asked today for a precise definition of experimental drama, Meng responds, "I know what isn't experimental drama. So what we're doing is whatever constitutes the opposite of non-experimental drama!"

According to playwright Liao Yimei, (who recently became the opposite of Meng¹s non-wife), "At that time, no one dared use a word like 'avant-garde,' which was considered a bad word. So we decided on a more moderate term, the meaning of which isn't exactly clear." Meng Jinghui began his directing career in the early 1990s, when the Chinese theater scene was at an all-time low, with very few plays being produced. His earliest productions included Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Jean Genet's The Balcony, Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, and Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano. Meng then began writing his own plays.

"It was hard at first, since no one understood the foreign plays we'd done. And it was quite difficult to find actors. They didn't want to act in my plays, since my style totally contradicted their academic training, the Stanislavsky Acting Method and all that. They feared doing one of my plays might end their career." But after Meng found an audience with critically acclaimed and increasingly popular plays like I Love XXX, Love Ants, Longing for Secular Life, and Street of Bad Talk, "Lots of actors wanted to work with me and my fellow directors. Now, as soon as you say 'experimental,' actors say, 'Alright! Count me in!"

"Lots of older directors," adds Liao with an infectious giggle, "are now calling themselves experimental! Although the term was dangerous a decade ago, now it¹s very fashionable." "Actors are very tempted by the money in TV and films," explains Meng, "as opposed to theater, which pays very little. But now what we're doing is very attractive to many actors. So not only have we cultivated a new audience, but we've developed our own creative ability, including new writers, stage designers, composers. Now we¹ve got the best actors in theater today."

A Brave New Theater, A Brave New Audience

When Meng and his fellow experimenters first began their misunderstood search for a new kind of theater, they literally had no audience. "No one could make any sense of what we were doing. At first, I did'¹t care; I just wanted to make the plays happen. Later, it become more important for me to have people actually see our plays."

A decade later, Meng's works often play to sold-out houses. In a fast-changing society where cheap forms of entertainment‹television, VCDs, karaoke‹are seducing most Chinese away from traditional forms of public entertainment and art, Meng's experimental explorations have achieved something even big-budget films have failed to do: create a new audience. "The people who graduated college around the same time we did, and who are now between 25 and 35‹they developed along with us. We nurtured them as much as they nurtured us. And now, we¹ve got a pretty big audience."

The second-run of Rhinoceros has already broken ¥10,000 in gross receipts per show. With an overall investment of only ¥280,000, Meng's experiment may not only return his investor's capital, but bring a respectable profit in a modern art form usually as profitable as a state-run enterprise.

Anarchy A Government Can Approve Of

The critical and commercial success of Meng Jinghui's plays achieved a breakthrough last fall with his production of Italian Nobel laureate Dario Fo's protest theater classic, The Accidental Death of An Anarchist.

With Fo's tragicomedy of police brutality, official corruption, and tyrannical absurdity in 1960s Italy, Meng brought to Beijing's stage the most controversial and audience-pleasing production of the last decade. Fo's play, modernized and localized by Meng and his actors, satirized almost every element of contemporary Chinese society worth taking a shot at. The degree of freedom allowed the production surprised audiences and critics alike.

"I was very surprised too! No one got in the way. It was not only not censored, but we added lots of material" (including references to the lyrics of often-censored rock star Cui Jian, Lao She's venerated theater classic Tea House, and Jiang Qing's Cultural Revolution "model operas.") It was a satire about human dignity, and made fun of elements in our society that many Chinese feel need to be poked fun at. So, no one said anything. Everyone was very happy with it. Also, Dario Fo is a leftist and a Nobel prize-winner. So he's politically and artistically untouchable. He'¹s got it all: credentials from the bourgeoisie and the proletariat! It's like we had a big Dario Fo flag shielding and protecting our activity."

Love At the End of the World

When I ask Liao Yimei to relate the story of Rhinoceros in Love, she unexpectedly tells me what is perhaps the true meaning of "experimental theater" in China‹or at least the thing that drives artists like her husband and kindred spirit, Meng Jinghui, to continue moving forward.

"It's a simple story,' she says. "A man falls in love with a woman, and does everything he possibly can to win her love. And I¹m sure that some of the audience will consider this man to be a fool. These days, people are really practical and smart. They know how to find the most suitable place for themselves in society, a secure position where they can't get hurt too badly or be ridiculed, and can easily avoid conflict."

"But I believe," she says, speaking slowly and reflectively, "that one should persevere in the pursuit of one's ideals and dreams‹just as in love. If we were all afraid of being ridiculed, there would be no progress in society. If you look at human history, it was the people who were ridiculed, yet still persevered along their own path, who gave us all the riches we have today‹they were the so-called fools."

Rhinoceros in Love plays until August 2 at the China Youth Theater on Beibing Masi alley, off Jiaodaokou. It¹s about a man who loves a woman who doesn't love him back. Even if you don't understand a word of Chinese, you would do well to see Meng Jinghui and collaborator Liao Yimei's latest experiment‹that is, something which is "the opposite of that which it is not." In other words, there's singing, satire, a drooping clock-shaped card table, a huge eye, a famous guitar-playing, love-song-crooning actor, and Wu Yue (the next Audrey Hepburn) jumping rope while she rejects a man's honest, stubborn, no-holds barred love at the end of the world.

Tickets: 6407-5959 See Zhaole theater listings for details


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