Many playwrights on reaching their maturity have sought a broader canvas to express their ideas with more complexity than a conventional one-and-a-half hour to two-hour time slot allows. They seek a format in which their concepts may be explored for many hours, or even days.
This is what director Stan Lai (賴聲川) has found. In his recent group project with the Drama Department of the National Institute of the Arts, he gives himself nearly seven hours, confident that his theme death - fully warrants such treatment.
The inspiration for the drama comes from the hugely popular The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, which the New York Times Book Review lauded as the Tibetan equivalent of The Divine Comedy. As a starting point and central theme, Lai uses an anecdote related in Rinpoche's book about Patient Five, a woman who tells the story of her life as she faces imminent death.
Patient Five recalls her travels in France, where, when touring a castle, she is struck by a painting of a Chinese woman. Intrigued, she retraces the story of this woman, Ku Hsiang-lan, back to 1930s Shanghai. Feeling that her fate is inexplicably linked with the woman in the picture, she seeks Hsiang-lan out in a Shanghai hospital. Here she hears Hsiang-lan's story and begins to understand aspects of her own life.
The sense that all these stories which range in place from Shanghai to Paris to Taipei, and in time from the 1930s to the present are all a single story about men and women facing the immanence of death, is enhanced by the bold use of the theater space.
According to Wang Shih-hsing (王世信), a stage designer who has worked on many of Lai's cutting-edge productions, the idea originated after Lai watched a Buddhist festival in which a play took place around the audience, rather than in front of them. "We wanted the actors to be able to move around the audience, rather like the cyclic flow of life," he said. "All these areas," he added, pointing to the stage space, "were originally audience seats. We removed the seating."
Like a Dream of a Dream (如夢之夢)
Performed by the National Arts Institute, Drama Department (國立藝術學院); Directed by Stan Lai
National Institute of the Arts, Performance Center, Drama Theater
(國立藝術學院表演藝術中心戲劇廳) 1 Hsuehyuan Rd., Peitou, Taipei; (北市北投區學園路1號)
Tonight and tomorrow, May 25 and 26 (each performance is divided over two days, starting at 7pm; performances end in time for audiences to catch the MRT). Also May 20, 21, 27, 28 (complete performance, starting at 1:30pm)
NT$700 and NT$900. For more information, contact tel 2893-8772
The audience now sits in a central pit on rotating stools so they can follow the action as it moves around them. "This is the first time that this design has been tried in Taiwan," Wang said. Two stage levels, and even the ceiling, are used, surrounding the audience with the action, immersing them in it and ultimately making them part of the story. Structure, as ever, is an important aspect of Lai's work, and the stage design is instrumental in separating elements and creating links in this complex work.
And why seven hours? It just happened that way. "Everything has its own proper dimensions, just as in nature," Lai said.
According to Li Chi-wen (李季文), director's assistant to Lai, the play was originally intended as a small-scale teaching exercise in experimental theater but it was enlarged after massive interest from students. Although it is a joint production, with all the members providing input, the creative force is clearly Lai himself and his fascination with the belief that life is more than what happens on the surface.
"I am not trying to sell the concept of reincarnation to the audience," Lai insisted, yet he also admitted that the playing of multiple roles by some actors was intended to reinforce the idea of connections between people separated by time and space. "If we don't have another life," he said, "then there are too many things that are purely random and cannot be explained."