Fri, Sep 16, 2005 - Page 13 News List

'Crooks' intends to steal young audiences

Tang Mei-yun and her production company are updating Taiwanese opera for contemporary audiences

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

A woman wails in a rehearsal hall of Taipei's National Theater, her face twisted in a look of painful disbelief. Her gestures are punctuated with drumming on woodblocks and the crashing of cymbals. It must be gezai opera.

In fact, it's Tang Mei-yun (唐美雲), and her eponymous Taiwanese opera troupe preparing their most recent offering, World of Crooks (人間盜) for performances tonight through Sunday afternoon. And as with Tang's past productions, the wails and expressions of anguish disguise a theater troupe that has a lot to be happy about.

That's because Tang has done more to resuscitate Taiwanese opera than any other performer of the genre. Her production company has revived and revised the ancient art for contemporary audiences that have grown accustomed to other operatic forms.

This weekend's performance, however, sees the troupe returning to a more melodramatic performance style that is sure to please traditionalists, while keeping the contemporary accouterments that have been the hallmark of the company's past productions: A sleek, minimalist set; stylish, anachronistic costumes; and fuller, more orchestrated musical accompaniment.

Written by Ke Zong-ming (柯宗明) and Shi Ru-fang (施如芳), and directed by Lee Xiao-ping (李小平), World of Crooks tells the story of two thieves who stumble across the house of an official deep in the night. The official has a reputation for honesty, but the thieves discover he is hiding a conspiracy. What's more, the official's wife is hiding a man.

The thieves, who have watched operas all their lives and are filled with a belief in patriotism, loyalty and honor, decide to take justice into their own hands. But should the official arrest the thieves, or should the thieves seize the official?

The story is billed as a "black comedy" but it's far more humorous than dark. Tang plays one crook, and actress Xiao Mi (小咪) plays the other. The official is played by veteran actress Lee Luo-qing (李珞晴), who audiences will recognize from innumerable appearances in tele-vision soaps. Liu Wen-liang (劉文亮) arranged the music.

It's not the first time Tang's troupe has turned to crime for subject matter. A show in 2002, Tian Deng Chi (添燈記), told of a loving couple who, unable to have a child, steal a newborn child from a beggar couple. Like the characters in World of Crooks, all involved were forced to look closely at their consciences.

Last year's The Immortal Lover (無情遊), also delved into the consciences of its protagonist. That show was loosely based on The Bridges of Madison County and was one of Tang's big efforts at updating the art form.

But her success in modernizing melodrama has come at the expense of pleasing lovers of more traditional gezai opera, who claim that in updating Taiwan's only indigenous opera, it has lost its roots. It's a balancing act that she takes seriously.

In an evening rehearsal on Tuesday, Tang was instantly recognizable as the prima donna local audiences know her to be. But during a conversation at the Chungho offices of her production company earlier that afternoon, she was playing the part of producer and waxing philosophical about the current state of Taiwanese opera and its prospects for the future.

"There are few good performers of Taiwanese opera any more," she said. "And people who can write the stories, well, [they] are even fewer."

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