By Ann Firestone Ungar
If your summer vacation doesn’t include a trip to China, you might consider an excursion to the lower East Side of Manhattan to see Behind The Mask, A Play by Chinese authors Feng BaiMing and Huang WeiRuo. The piece is vibrantly performed by a nine-member ensemble in Mandarin Chinese, with (I was told) Taiwanese accents. Much of the New York City Chinese population would probably be at home with this. For those of us with just English, there’s a large projection screen to the audience’s left which displays the script in translation. At first I was distracted, moving back and forth between the screen and the players, but eventually I was able to understand what was going on and thoroughly enjoyed this experience.
Behind The Mask is a play within a play. The exterior layer presents us with a company of actors gathered to rehearse a revenge tragedy with satiric elements. That tragedy forms the interior story. The director gathers her bickering and gossiping troupe, casts the play, and the actors begin to explore their roles and the story.
That story tells of a master sword maker who is given the task of forging a sword for the king. The sword is of such high quality that it is unbeatable in battle. The king then kills the sword maker so he will never be able to replicate such a weapon. As it happened, the sword maker made two swords, and before his death gives the second to his wife with the request that she give it to their son when he reaches the age of sixteen; he is then to revenge his father’s death. The wife does so, and the son, Mei Jian Chi, after much self-examination and regret, sets forth to carry out his family’s destiny at the palace of the bloody, cruel, bored and unpredictable king.
In a complex plot Mei Jian Chi, after an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the king, commits suicide under the influence of a mysterious professional killer. The latter convinces Mei Jian Chi that he will take his severed head to the palace and use it to gain an audience with king. He’ll tell the king that the head, when boiled, will dance, sing and do tricks which would be thoroughly entertaining. And that’s what happens. Furthermore, the king, seeing Mei Jian Chi’s dancing head, decides that in a strange sense there is a fun life after death. The assassin grants him his death wish, and the king’s head joins Mei Jian Chi’s head in the cauldron. The assassin becomes despondent, seeing that the guys in the tank are having so much fun, so he slits his own throat and joins them. Finally, the entire chorus (who throughout the play perform the roles of courtiers, mice, trees, and other essential and charming characters) joins the floating heads for a cheery rendition of “Haha Love, Love, Love/who doesn’t have love and blood/People are struggling in the dark yet dictators are laughing/Dictators sacrifice millions of lives to get what they want.”
Then, suddenly the power in the theater goes out. Who did it? The Chinese government? The electric company? Is the Chinese government the electric company? Whomever, power has spoken. Perhaps it’s not wise to satirize.
Throughout Behind The Mask, the actors within the tragedy wear masks, but the action is broken by several who one by one unmask and deliver monologues about their lives in the theater. We learn of early obsession with the stage, the sad tale of an abortion due to an ambitious dalliance with a callow director, stage fright, and the bonding of the actor to his role. These monologues are all acted simply, directly and with clarity. They bring a strong element of humanity to an already deep script which discusses the notion of destiny, family bonds, parental responsibility, grief, callous power, ambition within the acting community, and the need for love.
There is atmospheric music, both on tape and in live performance. The actors sing well at the play’s conclusion. The set is simple, fully functional, bright and clever. The adaptation of the script and the direction by Chongren Fan are clear, clever and unobtrusive.
A historical note: This play appears to belong to a movement in Chinese experimental drama in the 1990’s. A critic named Rossella Ferrari in her book Pop goes the avant-garde – Experimental Theatre in Contemporary China tells us “A post-modernist proclivity for hybridization, travesty and burlesque subversion of tradition triggered fresh approaches to adaptation and considerably altered the ways in which classic texts were produced on the contemporary stage.” The tragedy of the king and the heads is part of Chinese mythology, and it’s here, in Behind the Mask, manipulated in a very pleasant manner to bring forth a point.
And that point points, for me, in many directions. I’ll share one. Remember that in the end, the characters’ severed heads are bouncing around in a cauldron, They’re alive, though technically dead, still throwing their weight around. It’s tempting to draw a line to the 21st century’s talking heads, the TV politicos pushing their points of view endlessly and surviving into eternity in the video archives.
I had a good time at this production at Theater for the New City. You might, too.
BEHIND THE MASK, A PLAY – Written by Feng BaiMing and Huang WeiRuo, adapted and directed by Chongren Fan
WITH: Shan Y. Chuang (Director), Esther Chen (AJ – King Chu and Gan Jiang), Chien-Lun Lee (JT – Lady-Waiting), Xiao Quan (Bao – Mei Jian Chi), Viola Wang (Xu Man – A Ji), Neil Redfield (Charlie – The Man in Black), Hui-Shurn Young (Li Yun – Chorus Leader), Chris Smith (Jake – Chorus), Francisco Huergo (Paul – Chorus)
Co-Artistic Directors: K.K. Wong and Wayne Chang, Executive Director: Jason Haowen Wang, Lighting: Yi-Chung Chen, Set & Costumes: K.K. Wong, Original score: XiRen Wang, Mask Design: Andrew Diaz; Stage manager: Nicholas To, Casting: Wayne Chang, English language PR: Jonathan Slaff, Chinese language PR: Cathy Hung, Marketing & Social Media: Amanda Bohan, Script translation: Kristen Hung, Subtitle Control: Chi Chen, Poster Design: Celia Au. Presented by the Yangtze Repertory Theater (www.yangtze-rep-theatre.org) at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (East Village), New York, NY. Wednesday – Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Running time 1 hour, 15 minutes. Through July 12, 2015.