Mon, Jan 24, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Women find their funny bone in 'hsiang-sheng'

Traditional comedy routines usually performed by men are now being taken on by women. And the result is hilarious

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fang Fang, right and below, imitates an old lady in a comedy routine, with Teng Cheng-hui, left, and Hsiao Ai.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF PERFORMANCE WORKSHOP THEATRE

Stan Lai (賴聲川) said four years ago he would stop putting on hsiang-sheng (相聲) plays, but he has returned with style and his Performance Workshop Theatre (表演工作坊, PW) to produce Total Women (這一夜, Women 說相聲).

Working with actresses Fang Fang (方芳), Hsiao Ai (蕭艾) and Teng Cheng-hui (鄧程惠), Lai has created a phenomenal play that lets women speak for themselves in the traditionally male-dominated field of Chinese stand-up comedy.

Taipei Municipal Social Education Hall (城市舞台) has been packed to the ceiling for each of the shows in the first week and the sound of applause and laughter has been ringing around the theater.

A large part of the credit should go to actress Fang Fang, whose solid vocal performances and her versatility -- including opera-singing -- have re-established her as Taiwan's top female comedian.

The play begins with Betty (Hsiao Ai) and Annie (Teng Cheng-hui) hosting a gala event for a women's product firm called "Total Women." They wait for an old woman, reportedly a master of hsiang-sheng, a comedic art form that never had female practitioners.

The old women doesn't show up. She's dead, claims her granddaughter Funny (Fang Fang), who has come in her stead. The show must go on so Funny performs instead of her grandmother.

Scolding in the street, according to Lai, is Chinese women's equivalent of hsiang-sheng. When women cannot express themselves through the ancient art form of hsiang-sheng, they stand on the street and take aim, verbally, at everything in sight. Funny explains that her grandmother was a master street scolder and demonstrates her skills by chewing someone out.

Here the audience gets to enjoy Fang's spectacular acting, as she switches quickly from her role as a sharp-tongued woman to a little girl, from a weak-minded old lady to a male tricycle cabbie. But it is just the start of a series of excellent performances.

Later, Fang demonstrates more of her talents with the character Funny, recounting how grandma groomed her to have profound rhetorical skills, such as a stock market announcer, bus attendant, elevator operator and finally, waitress at a restaurant in Taipei where the bill is loudly accounted for in front of the customer. You would be amazed at how fast Fang can talk and add up the bill at the same time.

The characters of Hsiao Ai and Teng Cheng-hui principally respond to Fang's boasting or cliched words, but the two have their chance to shine.

In a piece called "Fat Pill" (立可肥) the two hostesses realize they have spent half of their lives trying to be skinny, so they suddenly wonder what it would be like to live in a world where fat, not thin, is beautiful.

They imagine a fat pill is invented that makes one instantly obese. They imitate the cheesy rhetoric of diet food commercials and switch the negative words about fat into praise. For women who have had to watch their weight, this segment is most liberating.

For Lai, three women in a hsiang-sheng play is unique. Traditionally there are a pair of actors. But in Total Women, we see a diversity of women's images on stage.

Hsiao Ai represents the pretty but brainless woman; Teng portrays the kind-hearted but talkative woman; while Fang is the androgynous entertainer, who can be an old lady, a middle aged divorce woman and a naive girl. The diversity of images further enriches the comedy experience.

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