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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 20, August 6 - 12

Bigamy is Best
by Richard Heddon
Taiwanese playwright and dir! ector Ismene Ting has returned to Beijing with the encore production of her play A Man with Two Wives.

Mainland actors say things like, 'Oh, you know, I have to renovate my house. So I'll have to leave early today.' It's difficult. Although we're all Chinese, there are still cultural differences.

Following a successful run this spring which took both mainland critics and audiences by surprise, A Man with Two Wives is back in Beijing for a command encore. Produced by Taiwan's seminal theater group, Performance Workshop, the play is the second Mainland-Taiwanese production involving ! a Taiwanese director and script and Mainland actors. It promises to herald a new era in Chinese theater, marked by a vital cross-fertilization of creative forces between Taipei and Beijing.

Bigamists, Caged Monsters and KMT-Style Public Relations An earnest, hardworking Taiwanese cab driver, Zhang Liguo, rescues a gangster who has been locked in a dog cage. In the course of liberating the gangster, Zhang is bitten and knocked out by a fierce dog guarding the cage, and unwittingly comes into possession of a mysterious, poem-like note attached to the hound's collar. We soon learn that an ambitious young KMT bureaucrat (humorously self-dubbed 'Mr. PR') arranged to have the gangster locked up in the cage with a suspicious note framing a rival gang.

Mr. PR's intention was that the note should be found and exposed to the media, sparking a war between Taiwan's two largest gangs, thus saving the government substantial cost and effort during a major anti-organized-crime campaign.

Unfortunately, the diligent bureaucrat didn't plan on the note being discovered by a bigamist taxi driver living a well-managed double life with no desire for publicity--lest both wives discover the truth about him.

Meanwhile, two local police officers can't make sense out of the inexplicable coincidence of two men both named Zhang Liguo, both injured by a dog, but living at different addresses, one married to a steakhouse owner, the other to a distributor of Amway-like beauty products. As the offi! cers' curiosity grows and Mr. PR adds pressure to have Zhang release the explosive note, Zhang's lies become complicated, often contradictory stories that he must juggle in order to keep the truth from the police, Mr. PR, and most importantly, the wives. "The story, of course," explains director Ting, "is about a man having two wives, which is not uncommon in Taiwan. But it's also about people lying, and how lies can build up on top of each other. In the play, you see how this man betrays his wife. But you also see the political structure of Taiwan, how politics and the mafia are connected. So actually it's a story about Taiwan."

A Man with Two Wives was inspired by the English play Run for your Wife, by Ray Cooney. "I read the script and really liked t! he idea of two families sharing the same set." Cooney's farce also features a cab driver leading a double life, who runs into trouble after an accident causes both his wives to file missing persons reports. But there the similarities end: Ting has created a truly home-grown farce, leaving almost no Taiwanese social institution unscathed by its breathless, finely orchestrated antics.

Surprisingly, "Very little of the script was censored or changed," says Ting. "Minor changes were necessary to localize some of the dialogue so it would be understandable to Mainland audiences, but the play's dialogue still retains a very Taiwanese flavor.

"At first there were many things the actors didn't understand, for instance some of the language and expressions," she continues. "The two lead actresses didn't comprehe! nd how a man could have two wives. They thought it was hard to believe and worried that the audience wouldn't buy it."

"But," says Ting, laughing, "when the actresses weren't on set, the actors admitted it wasn't difficult to understand at all!"

One Country, Two Theaters
Winston Churchill famously observed that the British and Americans are "two peoples separated by a common language." During Ting's first collaboration with her Mainland counterparts last spring, she discovered radically different work styles, and learned that linguistic differences would not be the only obstacles to building a cross-straits theater culture.
"In Taiwan, rehearsals are just like any other job," she says. "You show up on time, work hard, and leave when it's time to go. Here the process is much more relaxed. Several act! ors say things like, 'Oh, you know, I have to renovate my house. So I'll have to leave early today.' It's difficult. Although we're all Chinese, there are still cultural differences!" She laughs, then adds, "But they're starting to get used to my style." For the second run of A Man with Two Wives, veteran actor Qin Yan (reprising his role as Zhang's neighbor) served as temporary director for the new cast's early rehearsals. Ting flew over from Taipei (where she is acting in another play), drove directly from the airport to the theater and began watching a full dress rehearsal of the play less than 45 minutes after setting foot on PRC soil. Indeed, Ting and her Mainland collaborators have begun to forge some common ground.

The Battle For Attention
"Suppose we consider the question of attention," wrote John Howard Lawson,! in the Theory and Technique of Playwriting. "The degree to which the playwright has been preoccupied with other matters during the preparation of the drama may or may not disturb the unity of the finished product. But the preoccupations of the individual members of the audience, the degree to which their attention is concentrated or diffused, determines their participation in the dramatic events. The purpose of drama is communication: the audience plays, not a passive, but an active part, in the life of a play."

If only Mr. Lawson could have experienced live theater in Beijing, he would know how right he was. At the premiere of A Man with Two Wives at the Chang An Grand Theater in May, one could see the difficulty facing live theater in contemporary Beijing.

Soon after the play started, a show of ano! ther kind began: a sort of cellular phone and pager festival, during which every two or three minutes a cellular device would beep or ring loudly, making for a true battle for one's attention span. The fully cellular audience members could be divided into four distinct categories: those who kindly turned off their phones after the third or fourth ring; those who answered the phone, and explained, at top volume, they were watching a play and would call back later; those who answered the phone, then noisily fled the theater screaming "Wei! Wei!"; and finally, those who found it too much trouble to leave, and proceeded to discuss pressing business matters loudly enough to hear themselves over the imposing din of the inconsiderate actors on stage doing something called a play.

Matters were made worse by five elegant Chinese models se! ated two rows behind me, loudly cracking watermelon seeds, and spitting the shells on the floor. Since they were seated to my left and right, the resulting cacophony could be described as 'surround-sound' seed-cracking and disposal. Then, roughly one hour into the show, a karaoke adjacent to the theater's balcony-level tier began booming through the walls, making it difficult at times to keep my sanity, much less enjoy the show.

Nevertheless, by the play's climax, director Ting's tale of well-intentioned bigamy, corruption and good old fashioned duplicity and the strength of her cast brought about a unity of communication and attention. As the hapless taxi driver's unlucky day reached a pinnacle of absurd inconvenience, the audience's laughter blotted out the pagers and beepers, and the surround-sound seed-cracking was replaced w! ith giggles and side-splitting guffaws.

From Berkeley to Taipei to Beijing
But barely controlled mayhem is hardly novel for Ting, a former resident of Berkeley, California, where the average audience member might be found piercing a nipple or lower lip during intermission. After graduating from University ofCalifornia at Berkeley in 1984 with a degree in comparative literature, Ting returned to her native Taiwan where she began acting on the stage. Following a brief stint in television, and a year off from acting spent working at a computer company, she returned to the stage and soon played a central role in the Performance Workshop, Taiwan's leading contemporary theater group.

Ting began writing in 1990. "I wrote a play called Come Dance with Me, about the lives of different inhabitants of ! an apartment building. The play, unfortunately, didn't do too well at the box office. So I stopped
writing for seven years, then two years ago I got my courage back again." A Man with Two Wives was a smash hit in Taiwan and, now beginning its second run on the Mainland, will play to audiences all over China, with an anticipated run of 200-plus performances.

The Performance Workshop
Under the leadership of its founder and artistic director, Stan Lai, and with a core of Taiwan's leading theater artists, the Performance Workshop has made extensive use of improvisation in the creation of plays, and for the last 15 years has virtually changed the theatrical landscape of Taiwan.

"At that time," says Ting, "there was really no theater in Taiwan. No, that's not quite true. Let's say, it was very ! 'different.' Very nationalistic, mostly just propaganda. So when my brother-in-law and my sister [producer and actress Ding Nai-chu] and some other actors went back to Taiwan, we got together and started to improvise scripts. We worked through improvisation, because we wanted to create a lot of scripts for actors, to create a theater that was very Taiwanese, for the people, for the audience.

"Even now in Taiwan, it's very hard to find scripts, and back then, with censorship, there were almost none--except for works of propaganda and translated foreign plays."

Since then, the Performance Workshop has formed the nucleus of Taiwan's recent boom in theater arts. International tours have brought the workshop's plays to Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States. And since 1992, the workshop has also produc! ed feature films, drawing from its talented stable of improvisational actors. The first film by the workshop, The Peach Blossom Land (1992), based on the workshop's play of the same name and directed by Lai, met with wide international acclaim, winning prestigious awards at the Tokyo, Berlin and Singapore International Film Festivals. Lai's second film, The Red Lotus Society (1994), has also been acclaimed at, among others, the New York, Tokyo, Toronto and Berlin International Film Festivals. Workshop personnel were also involved in the highly acclaimed TV show We Are Family on the Taiwan cable network Super TV, a prime-time sit-com with a unique form created using workshop methods, featuring daily improvised shows that were able to incorporate news events on the same day the show was broadcast.

The Future of Chinese Theater
According to producer Zhang Shujun, this production marks the beginning of a nationwide tour of A Man with Two Wives, and a new era in artistic cooperation between Taiwan and the Mainland.

"The Workshop has 15 years of experience and has created and produced over 30 plays. Mainland China has lots of great actors, but there's a real shortage of new scripts and not too many directors willing to explore new kinds of theater," says an obviously enthusiastic Zhang.

"So our first step will be to bring Taiwanese directors and scripts over to collaborate with Mainland actors. We'll debut all of our productions in Beijing, then perform in all the major cities, and in principle, end every play's run with a performance, with Mainland actors, in Taipei. At the same time, we'd like to find good plays here and bring the! m to Taiwan, where ticket prices and the theater environment really make an ideal market for Chinese plays."

When the Performance Workshop's first cross-straits production, Red Sky, directed by Stan Lai, brought its Mainland cast to Taiwan in June of this year, the ensemble of older actors and actresses were warmly received by enthusiastic Taiwanese audiences (where, incidentally, cellular etiquette is som ewhat more advanced). Following the first performance, the 1000-plus audience members rewarded some of Mainland China's finest elderly thespians with a full five minutes of standing applause, moving several of the actors to tears.

Sensory Warning
A Man with Two Wives is the kind of farce that so overloads the senses, it should come with a warning label. Then again, if you're reading this ! in Beijing, your senses have already been assaulted by every conceivable dissonance known to modern man.

If you don't understand a word of Chinese, bring a friend to whisper the major developments in your ear, and you're guaranteed a good time. And don't forget the watermelon seeds.

A Man with Two Wives is currently playing at the Experimental Small Theater of the Central Drama Academy at Dong Mianhua Hutong.
Nightly at 7:30 pm.
Call 6401-7894/6615-6013 for information and reservations.


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