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  Beijing Scene

Viva La Revolution!

The new experimental drama Che Guevara reflects today's China through the story of one of the world's most renowned revolutionary martyrs.

On a dimly lit stage in a cramped downtown auditorium, a revolution is taking place. It starts with a sudden burst of light and the chatter of young Chinese men and women playing out one of the most heated battles of modern history: Capitalism vs. Communism. Hanging overhead is a huge red and black portrait depicting one of late 20th century's most revered revolutionary heroes: South American guerrilla leader Che Guevara.

But this stage is not located in Argentina, Guevara's birthplace, or Cuba, the land he helped free, but in Beijing. On April 12, a new experimental drama about the famous sultry-eyed, cigar-smoking revolutionary, appropriately titled Che Guevara, opened at the Beijing People's Art Theater. Conceived by playwright Huang Jisu and performed by an eclectic group of actors, artists and musicians, this play is a revolution in its own right in the capital's art scene.

Firstly, the group is putting on the production independently, without the official backing of an established theater company or the support of a work unit. Its 10 to 15 members represent a new generation of Chinese who are choosing to create unofficial networks, particularly in the arts, in response to the dwindling number of government-sponsored jobs and work units. Collectively, they refer to themselves as beipiao, or "Beijing drifters." Consequently, it comes as little surprise that this rebel theatrical group has chosen one of the world's most notorious drifters and non-conformists, Guevara, as the subject of its first production.

"Che was a totally free spirit," says the play's producer Yuan Hong, who produced most of director Meng Jinghui's works, such as last year's hugely successful Bootleg Faust "His life represented nomadic wandering and non-conformity, which many people in this society can relate to. He utterly refused to be forced to lead a fixed life. This was something Che always tried to resist."

Born in Argentina to activist parents, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (1928-1967) studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. Convinced that revoltion was the only cure for South America's social inequalities, Guevara joined exiled Cuban revolutionaries under Fidel Castro in Mexico. From there he played an instrumental role in the Cuban Revolution of 1956-1959 and afterward served as Castro's second-in-command.

But Guevara's work was not done. As a strong opponent of capitalist oligarchy and U.S. imperialism, he devoted his life to the global cause for Communism. To do this, he often traveled in disguise to Asia and Africa to promote and assist armed revolts.

His appreciation of Mao Zedong's compositions about guerrilla warfare written during the Chinese Civil War brought Guevara to China in the spring of 1964. Guevara returned to South America where he was eventually captured and executed in Bolivia in October, 1967. He was 39.

Nearly 30 years later, his body was exhumed from its mass grave outside Vallegrande, Bolivia, and returned to Cuba. The events renewed worldwide interest in his life, ideas and the events leading up to execution.

It was this revival that inspired Huang to write a play about Guevara, whose story is unfamiliar to most Chinese. Moved by Guevara's fight against social injustice, Huang set out to create a piece that would be part historical reverence and part satire of Chinese society. Some scenes re-enact uprisings in Cuba while others reflect contemporary Beijing street-life.

Nine artists perform, sing and dance their way through the show's disparate and often chaotic scenes, through which the occasional offstage voice of Guevara narrates. Faced with an array of events, some taking place in revolutionary Cuba and others taking place in a Beijing hair salon, the audience is left to digest a bewildering visual and intellectual montage. Throw in dialogue that meshes philosophical discussion and Beijing street slang and it is easy to understand why the troupe repeatedly explains that it is simply experimenting with experimental theater.

With all this topsyturvydom, the troupe is emulating the style of previous experimental drama, in particular the semi-improvised, fringe theatre of Beijing director Meng Jinghui, creator of last year's Rhinoceros in Love and Bootleg Faust. As such, Che Guevara will most likely be a hit in its own right. One of the things that makes this play different from Meng's is that there are four people sitting in the director's seat instead of one, a decision much in the spirit of Guevara's heralded fight against convention.

Shen Lin, a writer who helped write Bootleg Faust and head of the Central Academy of Drama's Theater Research Institute, immediately expressed interest in the project when he was approached earlier this year by Huang. Shen says what attracted him most was the way in which the script shows how Chinese society was influenced by the ideals and principals Guevara stood for.

Other directors include Zhang Guangtian, a self-confessed hunzi, or hoodlum, is the musical director. His resume includes playing the guitar for change in subway stations to more prestigious jobs such as writing musical scores for countless plays and films. Zhang provides the Dylan-esque chords that run through the show's four songs. Yuan Hong, an enterprising 30-year-old native of Sichuan province, infuses the complex production with ebullient energy. And film director Wang Huiqing was brought in to help with stage blocking.

"This is creative theater," Yuan says, beaming. "There is no one director who oversees everything. We work as a team, directors with actors, and pool our ideas on how the scenes should be performed. For Chinese audiences, Che Guevara marks a new kind of experimental theater because it is a uniquely collaborative effort."

The cast includes major players in mainland Chinese experimental drama. Yang Ting and Li Mei, two female leads, have both worked with Meng. Other veterans include actor Du Huanan, who directed and starred in last summer's production This Winter isn't Very Cold.

Shen says he hopes that all this anarchy would earn an approving grin from the grave from Guevara. But more importantly, he hopes it will force audiences to reconsider China's rapidly developing society and what impact this change has had on the collective Chinese consciousness.

"I want to make the audience re-evaluate the past 20 years and examine certain values that I feel have been lost in our society," Shen says thoughtfully. "It is easy for today's generation to look back on events in the past and criticize without realizing what it was like to live through them. They forget what it takes to be a hero, because nobody believes in heroism anymore."

Che Guevara will be performed daily except Mondays at the People's Art Theater until May 16. Shows start at 7:15 pm. Tickets are RMB50 and RMB80, and RMB25 for students. See Zhao Le Directory for venue information.


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