Fri, May 07, 2004 - Page 17 News List

Then at last 'The Game' arrived

Hong Kong's Theater Ensemble clown around with an adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's avant-garde classic, The Chairs, in their pantomime production of The Game

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

If it looks like absurd theater, that's because it is. The Game is from an Eugene Ionesco play and was adapted and performed by Theater Ensemble

PHOTO COURTESY OF NOVEL HALL

What does it mean when one of Hong Kong's premier theater troupes brings an award-winning production to Taipei? If it's an adaptation of a work by absurdist theater playwright Eugene Ionesco, it means nothing, of course.

More importantly, The Game (兩條老柴玩遊戲), by Theater Ensemble (劇場組合), may be one of the best works of no significance to ever come through Taipei. It takes the stage of Novel Hall tomorrow night and Sunday.

Lost? We all are. That's the point.

"It's adapted from Ionesco's 1952 play The Chairs," said Ensemble Theater's Zhen Yongpei (甄詠蓓) at a press conference last week. "We built on his play to elaborate on the meaning of life ? turning it into an exciting, fabulous, funny and crazy game."

Her description stirs curiosity, given the nature of the original work. At its opening in Paris, Ionesco described The Chairs as a "tragic farce."

"As the world is incomprehensible to me, I am waiting for someone to explain it," he wrote in the playbill for that first production.

TRAGIC FARCE

The plot revolves around an old woman and old man who keep a lighthouse. They've invited several guests to their island abode, including the man's childhood sweetheart, a photo engraver, several newspapermen and the emperor. The audience never sees any of these people but the old couple dotes over them, bringing each new guest a chair and making polite conversation. They've all come to hear the old man's philosophy of life. Unable to articulate it himself, he's hired an orator to do so for him.

It's this problem of articulation that is central to the theme of both The Chairs and Theater Ensemble's Game. The old couple, married 70-odd years, have spent every night of their lives retelling the same stories but never finishing them. The old man always begins his story: "Then at last we arrived" before promptly forgetting what comes next. It' s both a beginning and an end; an ontological merry-go-round from which the old man, his wife, nor any of us can dismount.

The old couple finally does. Satisfied that the meaning he's gleaned from his long life will finally be articulated, the old man and his doting wife leap from the lighthouse window to their deaths.

The orator he'd hired, as it happens, is deaf and mute. He mouths some nonsense, writes still more nonsense on a chalkboard and, frustrated, leaves. Exeunt. End of play.

When he wrote it, Ionesco had been prowling the alleys of Paris with the likes of Jean Anouilh and laying the foundation of avant-garde theater. Though The Chairs didn't sit well with its initial audience, Ionesco's earlier plays, The Bald Soprano (1950) and The Lesson (1951), earned critical acclaim and The Chairs was restaged four years after its premiere to an audience that had come to appreciate the playwright's sardonic wit -- a wit that would be best revealed in his most famous work, Rhinoceros (1959).

COMIC ABSURDITY

Theater Ensemble puts an interesting twist on Ionesco's preoccupation with articulation by pantomiming their entire production -- physical theater, they call it, a combination of mime and clown buffoonery -- and setting it to a whimsical melody. Only occasionally do the performers speak, and when they do, it's gibberish.

The approach has earned them praise and accolades in Hong Kong. Zhen and her acting partner, Zhan Juiwen (詹瑞文) jointly developed and directed the piece and their performances earned them best actress and best actor kudos, respectively, at the 1999 Hong Kong Drama Awards. The Game was reprised in 2001 and then again last year for the current touring production. Though the company's members are young, they've already become one of Hong Kong's top theatrical troupes, known for their creativity, humor and physical language.

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