The Chinese Fringe Theater Festival

La MaMa has presented a marvelous Chinese Fringe Theater Festival, consisting of three productions from China. The first, The Dictionary of Soul, is produced by The Physical Guerrillas and directed by Li Ning, and it’s eerie. The set consists of metal shelving, six shelves high. 10 actors in drab uniforms enter, and for more than an hour and a half they present us with an industrial dystopia, wordlessly. They work resignedly at their jobs scrubbing bricks - the sound is spooky - and after a while some of the become machines themselves. Someone rebels briefly, but goes back to work. They sleep on the shelves and the superintendent throws bricks at them to wake them. In their silence, each one is alone working at his pointless task.

The second half of the play, however, is redemptive. It’s more abstract than the first, with ritualistic movement including a death and a cleansing ceremony of pouring milk on the body. Finally the cast place the bricks in a neat pile and one by one - very slowly - the actors cross it and are reborn. Li Ning bases his work on Tao, and this is a mystical production accessible to any audience. Brilliant!

The second production, Two Dogs, is produced by Meng Theater Studio and directed by Meng Jinghui, performed in Chinese (with surtitles) by two actors. We don’t need to speak Chinese to know that this is comedy - its rhythm, its subtle, comic physicalization is universal, suggesting the Marx Brothers. The rambling plot concerns two young men from the country throwing themselves at city life - going to prison, getting jobs… The tone is sometimes mock lyricism, sometimes mock melodrama, sometimes cartoon. The actors frequently address us - eg, “This is when I do my interior monologue. I am an idealist.” There’s traditional music and rock music, and the two actors play guitar and drums. Great!

If the above two productions have a universal idiom, the third, The Story of Xiaoyi, is unique - I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s a cross between entertainment and training for social workers. It calls itself “psychodrama”, although it doesn’t meet the definition we have for the term, and it “aims to promote the general welfare of Chinese society.”

Produced by Shanghai Huidiji Public Psychological Care Center and directed by Sun Xinlan and Wu Gang, The Story of Xiaoyi concerns the children who’ve been “left behind” in their home towns when their parents migrate to the city for employment. Actors play these children and their family - based on actual cases - while other performers are actual helping professionals. These latter, however, are not always in the fiction - they address us as actual people before they enter the scene, and explain the challenges these poor kids pose to human service professionals. When they enter the scene, we see their interviews - or therapy sessions - with the family. One volunteer has the family has hug each other and say “I love you.” It’s a sober landscape for a professional: speaking of the Chinese people, a social worker tells us “They are not very familiar with the concept of mental health.” In a sense, these people/characters, who live in two realities, are a sort of Greek chorus, guiding us through the fiction thematically. Fascinating!

And so The Chinese Fringe Theater Festival is an enormous success - another unique offering from the ever-creative La MaMa.

Steve Capra

February, 2019

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