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On Stage Near Shanghai

Wuzhen Theatre Festival
A scene from Stan Lai’s Chinese-language play A Dream Like a Dream, performed at the Wuzhen Theatre Festival in April

Last May, my wife and I traveled to China in order to spend two weeks at the international Wuzhen Theatre Festival. I had previously been appointed honorary chairman of the event, which also included among its presentations the final play in my Shakespeare trilogy. 2013 is the festival’s inaugural year, and for the purpose a philanthropic businessman with advanced architectural tastes named Chen Xianghong had funded a 1,200-seat glass and filigree theater called the Grand, as well as subsidizing the renovation of four additional facilities. Although Chen is a former Communist official, there was little government presence in the project apart from its stamp of approval.

Wuzhen is a picturesque theme park near Shanghai on a Venice-like canal, which draws about six million tourists a year. It has lively storefronts that display such ancient Chinese practices as silk-work weaving and foot-binding. It also boasts very clean air and a number of elegant four-star hotels with luxurious accommodations and immaculate service. In these places you cannot drop a pea pod or a crumb of bread without it instantly being whisked up by a vigilant domestic and deposited in a plastic bag.

If this oasis sounds different from the China we’ve been hearing about in the media, with its contaminated chickens, floating pigs, poisoned air, corruption, cyberespionage, abuse of the human rights of political dissidents, inhumane prison treatment, and, most recently, rural relocation, well it is. The festival leaders were obviously more interested in displaying a different face to the world, particularly their pride in Chinese theater artists and their curiosity about American and European cultures. And while virtually nobody in our group knew a word of Chinese besides “Thank you” and “Hello,” a lot of the Chinese visitors spoke flawless English. True, the local plays we saw were hardly activist. The only political criticism I heard was at least half a century old, directed against the Japanese in World War II and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Anticipating the officially warming political relations between the newly elected Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and President Obama, the festival’s Chinese leaders displayed friendship, cooperation, and courtesy toward us visiting Westerners. (There was also an almost desperate eagerness on the part of young people to get photographs of us on their iPhones, preferably with our arms around their shoulders.)

Wuzhen has ambitions to become a major international theatrical event like Avignon or Edinburgh, and, judging from its first season, it will almost certainly realize them. The initial program featured a mix of six productions equally divided between East and West, plus panels, street mimes, carnivals, and lively student competitions. Coming from Europe was Inside the Skeleton of the Whale, a piece conceived by the Grotowski disciple Eugenio Barba and his Danish Odin Teatret company. Invited from the United States were David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad from the Signature Theatre, and my own The Last Will from the Abingdon Theatre. Coming from China were three productions, the most significant (and surprisingly most experimental) works of the festival.*

One was a crime story set to a rock score called Murder of Hanging Garden and directed by the avant-garde artist Meng Jinghui. Another was The Yellow Storm, centering on the Japanese invasion of Beijing in 1937, adapted, staged, and designed by the auteur Tian Qinxin; her Green Snake will be produced at the Kennedy Center in March 2014.

But the most awe-inspiring Asian entry was A Dream Like a Dream, an eight-hour epic by the extraordinary theater artist (and festival artistic director) Stan Lai, also known as Lai Sheng-chuan, whom the BBC has called “probably the best Chinese language director and playwright in the world.”

In turn, A Dream Like a Dream, which Lai has been working on since 2000, has been hailed by the leading Chinese critic, Raymond Zhou, as not only Lai’s finest play, but as “a major milestone in Chinese theater, possibly the greatest Chinese-language play since time immemorial.” I don’t have enough scholarship to confirm this seemingly extravagant judgment. But it may seem less exaggerated when you consider that Chinese playwriting is a relatively new phenomenon. (Until the early part of the twentieth century, theater in China was mostly composed of Beijing and Cantonese opera and shadow puppetry.)

Still, such hyperbolic praise is impressive from a Chinese critic, especially since Lai, who has written over thirty full-length plays, is not Chinese but Taiwanese. He was born and raised, in fact, in the United States up to the age of twelve, when his father was serving as a diplomat in Washington. (Lai later returned to the US with his wife Ding Nai-chu to earn a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.) And as if to confirm the intercontinental reach of Lai’s writing, the first workshop of his latest play was actually done in 2000 at Berkeley, and in English.

Clearly, the tensions between Taiwan and China have been relaxed. Lai’s work travels freely between the two countries and cultures. Before A Dream Like a Dream, the most celebrated theater piece by this playwright was Secret Love for the Peach Blossom Spring (1986), which his wife produced six years later as a movie in Taiwan. Secret Love is a Pirandello-like double play that combines written text with actors’ rehearsals and improvisations for the purpose of breaking down the barriers between stage and reality. It displays an unusual capacity to meld the past and the present, both in story and technique, so that medieval history is being dramatized side by side with a contemporary plot.

A Dream Like a Dream was partially created by Lai’s repertory company, the Performance Workshop, out of “crosstalk” (or xiangsheng, the Chinese word for standup comedy). The playwright provides the outline; the actors extemporize on it; then the playwright edits the results. America, of course, has a strong tradition of improvised standup, from Lenny Bruce to Lewis Black to Louis C.K. Less impressive is the improvisational technique encouraged, say, by the Method School, where actors often explore their own personalities instead of the ones they are being paid to play.

By contrast, Chinese performers have a kind of humility not often seen in our celebrity culture, though one can see simulations in Academy and Tony Award acceptance speeches. Huang Lei, the founding director of the festival and the man who first conceived it, though a wildly popular film and TV star in China, not only sought a relatively small part in one of the festival plays, but manages a bar in Wuzhen that you reach by walking through his home. Imagine visiting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Shazi on Main,” in Santa Monica, by schlepping through his kitchen.

Later, I learned that the leading gray-haired old lady in Stan Lai’s play was actually a well-known (and ravishingly beautiful) youngish movie star. Western celebrities equally willing to submerge their egos in a character part are rarer—Meryl Streep comes immediately to mind (most recently transforming herself into Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady) and in recent years Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman have improved their reputations as serious actors by precisely such transformations. But this kind of self-effacement is almost a trademark in Chinese theater.

As the title of A Dream Like a Dream suggests, the play belongs to a subcategory of plays that perhaps began with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, before being developed by Pedro Calderón de la Barca in Life Is a Dream and August Strindberg in A Dream Play (and then systematized in the contemporary theatrical form known as Expressionism). Lai’s dream play has its religious roots in Buddhism, and its breakdown of time and space creates a kind of fractured reality that embodies the spirit of Zen. In his excellent article about the festival published on Salon.com, the critic Jonathan Kalb accurately describes the play as “structured like a series of nested Chinese boxes: stories and dreams within other stories and dreams….”

The best Western theater pieces I know to match the eight-hour length of A Dream Like a Dream are the Royal Shakespeare Company’s eight-and-a-half-hour Nicholas Nickleby, Peter Brook’s nine-hour Mahabharata, Tony Kushner’s three-play Angels in America, and KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace, Robert Wilson’s week-long marathon atop a mountain in Iran. The duration of Lai’s play can be explained not only by the fact that it covers almost seventy years of human history, beginning in 1933 and ending in the year of the millennium. It also follows the life experiences of at least three principal characters, played by two or three actors each, so that a character not only moves through time by aging but also through space by appearing in two places, simultaneously.

All three characters are sick, and all three are preparing to die. Dying (along with traveling) is, in fact, the central metaphor of the play, which, moving through the decades, takes extinction and regeneration to be its ultimate destinations. The audience is arranged on swivel seats, around which the thirty-two actors parade clockwise, sometimes carrying briefcases, at varying speeds on specially constructed ramps above their heads, while the settings change frequently to accommodate the multiple scenes. The result is a sense of accelerated hustle, rather like being in Grand Central Station while several trains are taking on passengers at the same time.

The dream-death metaphor is established in the very first moment with an account of the fictional pre-Han dynasty poet Zhuang Heng, an invention of the playwright, being imprisoned by a Chinese emperor. (Like Mao during the Cultural Revolution, he is preparing to imprison or exterminate scholars and artists in order to revise history.) Zhuang escapes this fate by imagining a magnificent world for himself near a lake that he fully enters on the day of his execution. He leaves behind a poem called “Ode Like a Dream” with the following verse: “This floating life is like a dream/But if a dream is not a dream, What then is this floating life?/A dream like a dream.”

Echoing not only the name of his play but that of Calderon’s, Stan Lai then proceeds to embroider his own dream. For the purpose, he has woven together three other dream stories, each revolving around a diseased, or potentially diseased, individual. The first features a female character named Doctor A (who is, as she gets older, played by another actor who also plays Doctor B). She is depressed by the callousness and cynicism of her profession and by the death of her patients until she meets Patient #5A (who is played by an actor who plays Patient #5B as well), who is being treated for an undiagnosed disease. In effect, two different actors play different phases of the same character while also playing a different character. Later, we follow Patient #5A to Paris, where he becomes involved with a Chinese waitress, and where he then encounters a mysterious old lady named Koo, with whom he acts out the third story.

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    And this capacity for bold experiment is not limited to the theater. The Great Chinese State Circus has produced a jaw-dropping version of Swan Lake that combines traditional ballet with astonishing gymnastics. You can see some scenes from this on YouTube. 

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