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  Beijing Scene

Experimental theater director Meng Jinghui's
comic adaptation of Goethe's classic has Chinese audiences
eagerly lining up to go to Hell

German playwright Johann von Goethe's signature work, Faust, tells the tale of a lofty scholar who sells his soul to Satan in exchange for a life filled with love and happiness. It is a piece of theater that is rarely staged, due to the work's cryptic and often confusing narrative. But this year - the 250th anniversary of Goethe's birth - a Beijing production has reinvented the fantastical exploration of the human psyche, and the word is out that Hell has never been so much fun.

Bootleg Faust is the latest stage creation of China's leading experimental theater director, Meng Jinghui. Having already successfully directed such critical hits as Comrade Ah Q, Waiting for Godot, Accidental Death of an Anarchist and this past summer's Rhinoceros in Love, the 33 year-old director has embarked on an ambitious adaptation of the German classic which is currently playing to standing room-only audiences in Beijing's People's Art Theater.

Written over a period of six decades, Goethe's Faust is a complex alchemical drama whose five acts weave together an elaborate web of love, power, and the search for happiness and achievement. It is the story of the scholar Faust who, due to his pursuit of knowledge and study has repressed his human feelings. He is tricked into a bargain with the devil Mephistopheles whereby he is granted the freedom to pursue the human desires he has until now repressed on the condition that when he does find 'true happiness' he will surrender his soul. He discards his scholarly robes and, with Mephistopheles' devious guidance, pursues the young student Gretchen and eventually corrupts and destroys her. Like all good tales about intellectuals going to Hell, Faust is a quest for self-discovery and fulfillment whose main narrative device is a kind of suspense employed by most horror films (when the beautiful, scantily-dressed maiden goes upstairs to investigate the strange sound in the attic instead of running out the front door and calling 911).

The production currently being staged is a visually stimulating exploration of human nature and an often hilarious satire of Chinese pop-culture. Meng Jinghui stays true to his own innovative, trademarked style by skillfully wielding a hyperactive phalanx of lights, sound, movement, and language to distract the audience from the play's minimalist action, plot, and character development.

The 'stage' for Bootleg Faust is a ground-level brick floor featuring three simple wooden tables, surrounded by piles of sand forming the only barrier between the actors and their audience. This stark space functions, among other things, as a spartan scholar's cell, a bar, a model's catwalk and the planet Mars. The intimate black-box feeling of the Small Stage of the People's Art Theater, and the actors' innovative use of space - Mephistopheles first appears hanging from the ceiling - ensures that the audience is constantly involved in the drama unfolding before them.

With Faust as the vehicle we are transported through a bizarre dream-like world of pleasure and pain as he explores the source and meaning of 'pure happiness.' The journey he embarks upon mirrors the reality of the individual trapped within any given society, and the Chinese Faust's discoveries about beauty, achievement, power, and love are as applicable to modern-day denizens of the People's Republic as they were to 18th-century Europeans.

As with many of Meng Jinghui's other productions, such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Goethe's Faust has been transported to modern-day China and adapted accordingly. Well known for weaving contemporary events and trends into his plays (to consistently hilarious effect), Meng and his cast are prone to making changes and adjustments to the play, often on a daily basis. While the fundamentals remain constant, Meng does not shy away from experimentation even well after the premiere - a practice that enhances Meng's reputation of being simultaneously popular and avant-garde.

"We improvise everyday," says Meng. "The music was different yesterday than it was today, and it will probably be different again tomorrow. Things change all the time."

Although instrumental in choosing these situations, Meng insists that he is simply one part of the creative process:

"I'm just the man who makes choices. Some people think the director does everything, but, in fact, I just make certain decisions. Perhaps I'm cleverer than some when it comes to making choices, but a play involves so many elements: actors, lights, music. A stage performance never comes down to just one individual."

The dialogue in Bootleg Faust incorporates diverse dramatic devices including passages from classical Chinese poetry, references to characters from Chinese history and literature, contemporary slang, parodies of Greek mythology, and spoofs of the absurd dialogue that clutters so many contemporary TV shows.

Although the original work was adapted for the Chinese stage by Shen Lin, head of the Central Academy of Drama's Theater Research Institute, the script was a collaboration of ideas and improvisation. The play's language is certainly the most powerful dramatic tool in Bootleg Faust, with acerbic criticism pointed at China's intellectuals, both traditional and modern, via the exaggerated use of classical literature and stereotypical representations of the conventional Chinese scholar.

The language would not be as powerful however, if it were not for the additional theatrical tools such as lights and music. Composed by Chinese rock legend He Yong, Bootleg Faust's interludes are unannounced, sudden bursts of energy that include haunting Greek choruses (traditionally employed to begin and end dramas), a Parisian ballad for Faust's seduction of Gretchen, and Cantopop-techno tunes accompanied by a pom-pom-shaking squad of cheerleaders.

Although even non-native speakers with a strong command of Chinese may find many of the historical and literary allusions difficult to follow, Bootleg Faust is visually engaging, high-energy entertainment. Fear not if the play's sophisticated observations on the human condition pass you by; the powerful acting, sharply-honed comedy and tight choreography will keep in your seat from start to finish. Bootleg Faust is a work whose appeal and relevance is universal, whether you've sold your soul to the devil or just happen to be an ordinary sinful human being. The desire for unadulterated happiness - an inescapable human theme - is one that anyone can relate to.

As Meng Jinghui says, "To me, Faust is not a foreigner. He is me. He is all of us."

Bootleg Faust plays through January 7 at the Small Theatre of the People's Art Theater, No. 22 Wangfujing Street, Dongcheng District,
Tel: 6525-0123. Shows start at 7:15 pm.


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