2018 might be off to a rather chilly start, but the even the sub-zero temperatures failed to keep theatregoers from attending the opening night of Macau Experimental Theatre’s Mr. Shi and His Lover at the National Arts Centre (playing until January 13th). Given the high accolades that this production has received coming out of Toronto and the Summerworks Festival, it is no surprise that the Azrieli Studio was buzzing with spectators eager to see what this 80 minute musical drama, sung entirely in Mandarin, would hold. We would not be disappointed.
Mr. Shi and His Lover (written by Wong Teng Chi, directed by Tam Chi Chun, with Composer and Musical Director Njo Kong Kie) is inspired by the real life events surrounding the relationship between Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu and French diplomat Bernard Boursicot. The tale is really quite extraordinary as it involves espionage, false identities, and a tragic love story that ended up making international headlines. The Tony-award winning play M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, is similarly based on these events. Unlike Hwang however, Macau Experimental Theatre (MEXP) does not try to reconstruct or reimagine the historical narrative but rather the characters themselves.
The stage design is very minimal, dressed with only the most necessary of items needed to visually embellish the story. Admittedly, the musicians, Yukie Lai and Kie, dominate a significant amount of the space with their respective instruments (a wooden marimba and grand piano- not to mention their other percussion instruments) but this is, as you might imagine, a worthy sacrifice for such an evocative live score. A dressing stand is kept downstage, with a few costumes and props for the moments when Shi is performing their female persona. Though the male characters don smart modern suits for the majority of the piece, director Chun makes an important comment about how clothing (and the act of getting dressed) is a significant part of how we perform our gender as when we see Shi changing out of his suit and into a more traditional Chinese women’s outfit.
Both playwright and director attempt to steer clear of historical accuracy by way of focusing primarily on the two characters and the inner motivations at play in this fascinating scenario: a man and his lover find themselves in prison under allegations of espionage and treason. During their trial it has been revealed that the man’s lover is not the woman she had presenting as for the last twenty or so years. They were not, in fact, biologically a woman at all. Each of them, understandably, have some questions for one another (and themselves) and this is where the play begins.
Dramaturgically, this piece is made up of seven musical vignettes that are not at all linear, but rather work cyclically in order to convey the particular headspace(s) or perspective(s) of the characters as opposed to dictating a series of events. Mr. Shi and His Lover is as intellectually stimulating as it is emotionally driven. If the title doesn’t tip you off (i.e. Mr. Shi sounds an awful lot like Mr. ‘She’), the play tries to tackle questions of gender as performance and society’s penchant for labelling and compartmentalizing almost all aspects of human existence.
Boursicot, speaking as a diplomat in one particular scene, asks the audience what it means to be part of a country, to be happy, and to be in love? What does it mean to be heterosexual versus homosexual? And do these ‘illusions’ help or hinder us when it comes to living our best lives? Categories, at times, are useful for individuals to seek out others of like minds and to feel a sense of belonging; but, at the same time, they can be too constricting, not intersectional enough, and/or used in nefarious and oppressive ways (i.e. when labels are used to segregate minority groups from the dominant culture). Would the world be a better place without such labels and categorization? It’s almost impossible to say. What we can hypothesize, however, with some degree of certainty is that, without the strict labels and social codes dictating the predominantly heterosexual/heteronormative Chinese romantic culture at the time, the relationship between Shi and Boursicot probably would have played out much differently.
Actors Jordan Cheng and Derek Kwan give exceptional performances that, I can imagine, will only build more steam as the run progresses. Cheng as Mr. Shi is perfectly androgynous not only in physicality but in vocals as well, with his impressive range blurring the lines between tenor and soprano. Kwan brings strength and vulnerability to his performance as the French diplomat and his character’s frustration with Shi and the situation they find themselves in is palpable. The two together deftly play off of one another creating an electric ‘will they or won’t they?’ tension between the characters where the power struggle between Shi and Boursicot is in constant flux.
The greatest strength to Mr. Shi and His Lover lies undoubtedly in its mise en scène- that is to say, the piece as a conceptual and aesthetic whole. At only 80 minutes, MEXP manages to create an incredibly thought-provoking production that takes a rather traditional form (i.e. Opera, and, more specifically, Peking Opera) and uses it in a less traditional way. It uses both the Mandarin and English languages (and even French at one point!) and subtitles to create layers of meaning within the performance, beyond just for translation purposes. For example, in the excellent article written by Kwan for Intermission Magazine (and featured in the MEXP companion program insert) he states that the third person singular pronouns for “he/she/it (animals)/it (nonliving)” (“We’re from Macau”, 2018-01) are all represented visually by different symbols in Mandarin, but, despite that fact, “all of them are pronounced the same”. Given that Mandarin is an incredibly tonal language, using “ambiguities of time and tense, as well as subject, and even between verb and noun” works very much in the favour of a piece that seeks to blur the line between genders.
Mr. Shi and His Lover is definitely worth the journey out in the cold. It’s technically excellent: both performers and musicians deliver superlative performances in their respective crafts; the world of fantasy created by playwright Chi and director Chun is a wonderful respite from the realm of Realism that tends to oversaturate Ottawa’s stages. Though this review might seem comparatively short to other reviews this author has written in the past, this is by no means evidence of the lack of textual and visual threads woven into this production. It is, in fact, a testament to the skill of the creative team when a Critic must hold back for fear of unraveling the piece in its entirety.
Mr. Shi and His Lover
A Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic/Point View Art Association (Macau/Toronto) production
Music by Njo Kong Kie
Text by Wong Teng Chi
Directed by Tam Chi Chun
Cast: Jordan Cheng and Derek Kwan
Musicians: Yukie Lai and Njo Kong Kie
Playing from January 3-13 at the National Arts Centre (Azrieli Studio)