Fri, Jan 14, 2005 - Page 13 News List

Women stand up to male-dominated comedy

In a break with convention, Performance Workshop Theatre lets women take the reins of traditional `hsiang-sheng' stand-up

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Three actresses challenge taboos in spicy stand-up comedy shows.

PHOTO COURTESY OF PERFORMANCE WORKSHOP THEATRE

Performance Workshop Theatre (表演工作坊), founded by director Stan Lai (賴聲川), established its fame with the 1985 play The Night We Became Hsiang-sheng Comedians (那一夜,們說相聲). The show transformed traditional Chinese stand-up into a nationwide craze, so to celebrate the troupe's 20th anniversary, Lai plans to transform traditional stand-up once again.

Three women will challenge the traditional, male-dominated Chinese style of stand-up comedy called hsiang-sheng (相聲) in a show called The Night Women Became Hsiang-sheng Comedians (這一夜,Women說相聲).

In a marathon of performances, veteran comedian Fang Fang (方芳), experienced theater actresses Hsiao Ai (蕭艾) and Teng Cheng-hui (鄧程惠) will tackle this monumental task.

"We have always challenged ourselves to give different faces to the art of hsiang-sheng. Traditionally, women are not allowed to do hsiang-sheng. So this time it is a difficult challenge for us," Lai said.

Since it's a challenge to the male-dominated art, Lai did not just replace the male performers with women. Nor did he encourage his actresses to imitate the male performances, he said.

Rather, he tried to understand the differences between men's and women's speech, "and then find a special women's language," he said.

In the process, Lai found that women can listen and speak at the same time. A couple of women can even talk heatedly about three to four topics at the same time. On stage, though, dialogue recreating this speech style would be difficult to follow for the audience.

Lai said the play's content revolves around current women's topics, such as diets, fitness, beauty products and relationship problems, and content ranges from the ancient topic of feet-binding to the latest topic -- "doing the splits" (劈腿), otherwise known as cheating on one's significant other.

"These topics may somewhat be related to feminism, but we don't want to overemphasize the connection," Lai said. "We want to use jokes and laughter to present and explore the frustrations and choices women face."

The story of The Night Women Became Hsiang-sheng Comedians begins at a year-end party of what seems to be a direct-sale company called Total Women.

Two top saleswomen Blue Diamond (Hsiao) and Ruby (Teng) desperately wait for a mysterious old lady to show up, perhaps for some great tips about selling their products. But the old lady never shows up. Instead a woman claiming to be the lady's granddaughter (Fang) appears, but she cannot explain the old lady's absence.

A series of talk-show episodes then begins. The six episodes include monologue, dialogue, call-and-response and three-person group talk.

In one episode, Shouting Abuses on the Streets, actress Fang rants while playing an angry woman cursing everything she sees. She adopts Huang-mei opera voices and Beijing opera voices and also imitates Mando-pop singers.

Fang will also perform a solo episode about the thoughts and feelings of a woman coming out of marriage.

The three actresses lay it bare about their experiences with their "special friend" that comes every month for a few days.

"We just talk in a very straightforward manner about a biological phenomenon. And the result has been explosive laughter at the past few rehearsals, because the jokes were too realistic," said Fang.

And of course there will be performances about women's language used only in "very private" situations.

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