Saturday, June 6, 2009

Miscellaneous Musing - A Bit of Local Theatre

A Bit of Local Theatre - The Visit

Performed by: the 2009 Graduates of the Department of Foreign Language and Literature at Huafan University

Performance Date: June 6, 2009

Occasionally, I’m reminded of what drove me to want to be an actor so many years ago: the sheer thrill one gets performing in front of a crowd. Watching the cast of The Visit come out for their curtain call was one of these times. Here was a group of soon-to-be college graduates, many of whom had not trained to be actors and who may never grace the stage with their presence again, showing a level of excitement and pride that is truly inspiring. That they had performed in their second language made their accomplishment all the more worthy of accolades.

The graduates had just performed a new version of Frederich Durrenmat’s 1956 play The Visit, a play that was later turned into an opera called Der Besuch der Alten Dame. Durrenmat’s play had not taken place in a specific town so as to give the impression that it could happen anywhere. However, Script Editor Frank Houng decided to set the events in Canterbury in the 1950s, in the days of the McCarthy hearings, the Cold War, and the fear of nuclear annihilation. It is also a time of change, as technology, popular concepts of gender equality, and a gradual acceptance of female sexuality were spreading. However, as the lights came up on the opening scene of this version of The Visit, it became clear that the changing attitudes that so aptly demonstrate the greatness of the 1950s are not to be found in Canterbury, at least not where gender is concerned. No, in Canterbury we find a young, na├»ve woman being mocked in court by a man who wants nothing more than to walk away after getting all what he desired from her.

This woman, Claire, pregnant and seemingly without a friend or family member in the world, is trying to convince a judge that the man she loves is the father of the child she is carrying, a charge that Jason denies. However, it’s not enough for Jason to simply reject Claire and her unborn baby; no, he has to destroy whatever good name she has left. He does this by producing two witnesses, each of whom claims to have had sexual relations with Claire. The judge sides with Jason and reprimands Claire for having the audacity to sleep with someone before marriage. Her punishment: banishment from Canterbury. In the years that follow, fate is kind to Jason; it is not so to Claire. Abandoned and desperate, Claire finds herself taken advantage of, the object of both predators and unscrupulous men. Even after escaping a life of debauchery and sin and acquiring a fortune, she still cannot forget the injustice that was done to her. She shall have her revenge.

Mr. Houng’s adaptation of The Visit is a mixture of high drama and somewhat successful attempts at situation comedy. I preferred the play’s dramatic storyline much more than its comic aspects, which to me lessened the impact of Claire’s extremely unreasonable demand and the rather precarious situation that Jason finds himself in as a result of it. I could have done without the somewhat awkward narration of Toby and Kaby, the two men who provided false testimony against Claire. In a later scene, three of the townspeople try to assassinate Jason. However, instead of being tense and frightening, the attempts are played for laughs, and Jason remains somewhat oblivious to the fact that his neighbors are turning against him, despite the fact that one of their knives is lying in front of him. As my old acting teacher used to tell me, if an object can be seen by the audience, don’t pretend it can’t be seen by a character on stage. I also had mixed feelings about the play’s musical numbers. This adaptation used songs from Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Sarah Brightman. These seemed to work well, given the theme of the play and the particular scene in which they occurred in. However, the inclusion of Abba’s "Money, Money, Money" struck me as unnecessary and distracting.

Luckily, the three lead actors in this performance hit most of the right dramatic notes. Tina Chen is a marvel as the younger Claire – she captures Claire’s desperation perfectly and this makes her change from wronged woman to calculating prostitute extremely convincing. Equally good is Ji Wan-lin as the older Claire. As a wealthy woman seemingly destined to live out her life alone (her husbands keep dying on her), Wan-lin impressively conveys the moment when revenge becomes her obsession, and in every scene that follows it, we can see the impact that this obsession has on her mental well being. I also like the performance of Frank Huong as Jason. In the early scenes, Jason is portrayed as smug and overconfident, as if there is no doubt in his mind that the judge will rule in his favor. As the play goes on, we see Jason continue to display this overconfidence, until that emotion gives way to nervousness, fear, and ultimately selflessness. Huang conveys these emotions adequately. In addition, the supporting cast, in particular Mulan Huang as Jason’s wife Luna, Lin Jia-yu as Jason and Luna’s daughter Alicia, and Betty Tsen as the captain of the police department, is up to the task for the most part.

When I watch films or plays, I’m always on the lookout for something special, that bit part that everyone will notice, that moment in which an actor or actress displays a hint of extraordinary talent. The Visit had a few of these moments for me. One of them took place during a rendition of “That’s All I Ask of You,” originally from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. The scene takes place in a forest and involves Jason and Claire in their younger years. As the two of them sing, a fairy dances behind them. Partway through the song, Jason motions for Claire to dance with him. The fairy stands next to Jason and with perfect coordination performs the steps as he does, as if somehow teaching him the ways of love and romance through dance, as if she is teaching Jason how to open up his heart, how to be the right kind of man. As she does this, the fairy has the kind of smile on her face that would make even the toughest of men melt inside. It’s a moment of beauty, and Yu Li Zhen is simply amazing to behold. There is another dance number of note later in the play. That one is performed by Lin Jia-yu and her real life dance partner Chen Shen Zhao. It is fast and energetic and will blow you away. I can see them going places one day. The end of the play also contains an unforgettable moment, as Mr. Huong walked to the front of the stage singing “Requiem.” It was very effective and showed this young man’s impressive range vocally. I also was deeply moved by Ms. Chen’s pleas for help in the beginning of the play and Wan-lin’s pitch-perfect moment of forgiveness. After renewing her vow of revenge, she returns and very tenderly finishes “That’s All I Ask of You.” In doing so, Wan-lin conveys crystal clear that Claire is now free of hatred.

Not everything works in this rendition of The Visit, but enough does to recommend it. While some of the dialogue is hard to understand, that’s to be expected in most plays, regardless of the first language of the cast. Despite the occasional technical problem and a few moments in which performers appear to be a word or two late in their musical numbers, the production is of good quality and is certainly worth watching. If this is indeed the last we will see of these performers on stage, I believe they have a lot to be proud of.

*I'm told the performance will be available online fairly soon.

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