Last night, Bwog writer Gabrielle Kloppers had the honor of attending the opening night of Thunderstorm (Re)Making and Circ, two performances by the Blue Glaze Theatre as part of their 2016 Spring Production, in conjunction with the Association of Chinese Student Theatres Forum 2016.
Blue Glaze Theatre is an amazing part of our campus, and continues to innovate this spring by taking a step towards increased production of original work. You may remember Blue Glaze Theatre from their performance of Chinglish last Fall, which was remarkable, but this spring’s Blue Glaze Theatre is a completely different beast. Every collaborator has a role in transforming ‘nothing into something’, in the words of Ziqing Wang, the Producer. Blue Glaze Theatre set out their goal for this semester to explore the struggle and confusion in life through the use of physical movement, highlighting that there ‘are no correct answers to the questions posed by these works’ (Ziqing Wang). In the light of this professed statement, I was both excited and wary of this Spring’s production.
I entered the opening night of the Blue Glaze Theatre Spring Production with no idea what to expect. The first play. Thunderstorm (re)making was a devised performance, which used the expertise not only of the director, Qianqian Chen, but also the skills of performers and collaborators Kaidi Li, Xiaojin Niu, Rui Yang and Yuyu Zhang to retell the famous Chinese Play Thunderstorm. This play, written by Cao Yu in the 1930’s, is immensely popular in China and tells a tragic story through generations of a rich industrialist’s family. Despite the play being so well known in China, much of the Chinese audience had never been exposed to it, so they, like me, looked at (re)making with fresh eyes.
The play started off in an engaging manner, with the four performers dressed in white and entering a darkened stage with only candles that leant their faces a sfumato and almost dreamlike quality. As if to counter the dreamlike air of this scene, the girls started climbing up the stairs of the Glicker Milstein Theatre, interacting with the audience. This lucky Bwogger was even hugged by one of the girls. This interactive element was highly successful; it introduced the four performers as guides through our journey of the play, which focused on three female characters throughout the generations. In this way, I felt led, almost like Dante with his guide Vergil, as the performers made the play more accessible.
This tied in with the goal of the performers and director, who desired to incorporate various forms of text and dance to evoke the play rather than rely on the words of the old play itself, in order to make it more accessible. In this way, they used some words from the text, but also used more contemporary music, including one English song and some electronic music. Another way which they modernized this highly traditional play was by performing it without many props and with no setting, which made it feel more modern as the mood relied solely on the music, the performers, and the lighting, which was changeful and often pitted some of the performers against others by using different illuminating colors on different groups of performers.
Another striking scene incorporated the use of wooden frames as a prop, which harkened back to a scene in the original Thunderstorm where a lady, Mrs Lu, enters a house after 30 years, and realizes that her photograph is everywhere, framed and hanging around the drawing room. In (re)making, these frames are used to represent the entrapment of Mrs. Lu, also known as Shiping, by the abandonment of Zhou Puyuan, the father of her children, and questions the role of men and women in the household. This scene is incredibly poignant, as Puyuan is simultaneously driving his current wife, Fanyi, to madness. Even without the background knowledge of Thunderstorm, this scene is one of the play’s strongest, and emphasizes the continual feminist themes that run throughout (re)making.
This is perhaps the most astounding thing about Thunderstorm (re)making. As Director Chen points out, ‘it is still not easy to be a woman in the year of 2016. 80 years later, we still recognize the struggle of the three female characters.’ Consequently, despite the content of the play being at times obscure, and the language barrier difficult to surmount, (re)making appeals to our desire to ‘dare to wish for a new world’ (Chen). For this reason, the play remains easy to connect to, despite the very specific reference text, and this is a testament to the skill of all the collaborators involved with the production. Particularly, it fits in perfectly with its environment here at Columbia, a school that often struggles with how to deal with sexual inequality, but where everyone is highly motivated to get to the root of these problems and establish the new world that Sifeng, Fanyi and Shiping are searching for in Thunderstorm.
The following play, CirC, is a little less accessible to the average Columbia student, although it attempts to level engagement by featuring prominently what can be assumed to be a Columbia student, chatting on the phone and waiting at the subway (Han Nie, SEAS ’16). The play begins with a sort of detective scene, looking for a murderer, with the detective played by Xu Han, an undergraduate senior at the Manhattan School of Music. As she looks for the murderer, some sinister characters appear, dressed in white with chalky white paint all over their bodies, and lips marked by slashes of red lipstick, eyes pillowed with black shadow, evoking the image of creepy clowns, the nightmares in our minds. These characters are played by Sharon Shu, a sophomore at Columbia, Yucheng (Paul) Yang (CC ’19) and L. Chen (who used to work at CERN and the Brookhaven National Museum of Modern pARTicle). L. Chen takes a leading role, and ends up telling a moving story about suicide (in Chinese), which moves the audience to both laughter and tears.
However, the play does not continue as a plain detective story, as ultimately the story stops being one of investigation of a crime, but more of the investigation of the mind (much like Virginia Woolf, but far more creepy). In this way, the production fulfills the goals set out initially for CirC, by imagining boldly, creating with their own hands and collaborating, and by starting and engaging in continuous conversations. Thus, the story of CirC is not as linear as some viewers may desire, but meanders across the scope of the human imagination, from the search for a murderer, to the search inside the human mind.
One aspect of this is the appeals of CirC to art. Seemingly unrelated, two artists (Shuming Constance Zhou, BC ’18 and Yijun Yuki Zhu, a MS candidate in Operations Research in Columbia University) are pictured, also recounting separate stories and painting the ghoulish figures, and eventually, one another. To me, these painters represented the creative brain, and how the creative brain turns ideas, and stories, into creative output.
Walking away from CirC, I did not have the same feeling of satisfaction as I did from Thunderstorm (re)making. As a East Asian Languages and Cultures Major, the appeal of something rooted deeply in Chinese History appealed to me. However, from CirC, I took away many questions: what did that mean? Why did they use that technique? Ultimately, I believe this was the most important message of CirC, much more than technical accomplishment, even though this was also a draw. The play incited questions, and according to director Lydia Lai, although the ‘orderly-chaotic shenanigans’ of Circ reach a shore in the performance of the play, these ideas live on in the minds of the audience members.
Ultimately, both Thunderstorm (re)making and CirC were amazing and thought-provoking performances, but it was their placement together in one performance that made them all the more effective. With the feminist questioning and traditional themes in Thunderstorm (re)making, and the more experimental, extremely contemporary storytelling techniques of CirC, they formed the perfect compliment to one another. I walked away with the images of not only the strong female figures of Thunderstorm, but also the ghoulish figures and questioning investigator of CirC.
Photo by Gabrielle Kloppers