Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Behind the Mask


Behind the Mask
by Feng BaiMing and Huang WeiRuo
adapted and directed by Chongren Fan
presented by Yangtze Repertory Theater

Behind the Mask, by Feng BaiMing and Huang WeiRuo and from the American company Yangtze Repertory Theater, presents us with a troupe of actors in China. They’re rehearsing a play based on a myth, well-known to the Chinese, about a cruel king who orders his sword-maker executed after he’s forged his strongest sword.

16 years after the swordmaster’s death, his young son sets out to avenge his death by killing the king. But he’s too timid to do it. After failing in his attempt, he finds himself in the company of a compulsive assassin who wants to decapitate the king – he has such a nice neck, after all – but in order to gain access to him he needs the boy’s head. It’s an interesting conundrum. The two of them come to an agreement, the boy sacrifices himself, the assassin kills the king – and then himself.

The script alternates between showing us the characters as “real” people and showing us them as characters in the fable. When they’re acting, the wear half-masks, which the cast don respectfully, almost ritualistically.

Chongren Fan’s direction is graceful and delicate. He creates some lovely moments when the actors address us in quiet, fragile monologues that contrast with the stylization of the myth they’re rehearsing. They speak to us as if waking from a dream. Like the masks, these short monlogues are a marvelous technique to distance us from the legend being staged. The contrast is enhanced when the company, acting in the myth, forms a forest in a beautifully stylized moment.

The directorial choices do not, however, serve to explicate the mechanics of the larger play, and the “real” characters behave in ways we don’t understand.

The play is performed entirely in Mandarin, with translation projected on to a screen, which accounts for some of the obscurity.

At any rate, The Yangtze Repertory Theater has chosen a fascinating project. We’ll be watching to see what they offer next.