In Jean-Paul Sartre's play, No Exit, four strangers are placed together in a room that turns out to be hell. Chi Wei-jan's (紀蔚然) latest play draws on the structure of No Exit and puts six characters together for one night. Though the setting of Chi's play isn't the underworld, each character lives in his or her own kind of inferno.
Countdown (倒數計時:夜夜夜麻完結篇), which debuts this week at the Metropolitan Hall(城市舞台), explores themes that Chi has been working with for the past five years: contemporary Taiwanese society and the characteristics of different generations.
"My plays deal with the state of things," Chi told the Taipei Times over coffee and cigarettes at his office at National Taiwan University (NTU) where he chairs the school's department of theater. "Mostly the plays are static. Nothing is moving."
The dramatic inertia in his work, Chi believes, mirrors a country bereft of idealism. "When you talk about plot it seems to [imply] a development," he said.
A founding member of Creative Society (創作社劇團), a theater group formed in 1997, Chi is one of a handful of contemporary local playwrights writing original work in Mandarin and Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) that criticizes contemporary society.
His 1999 work, Kiss of Death (一張床四人睡), features the breakup of two traditional couples because they are incapable of dealing with Taiwan's rapidly changing society. Utopia Ltd (烏托邦 Ltd), produced in 2001, looks at advertising agency employees who are forced to compromise their ideals to keep their jobs.
For ideals to be lost, of course, they must have once existed. Chi points to the end of martial law and the late 1980s as a golden age of idealistic fervor - especially in drama. "Everything became possible. There were no more political taboos; there were no more governmental regulations, so there was this booming of theater activity at that time," he said.
But, he says, a noticeable shift began in the 1990s when entertainment began to replace culture as the dominant narrative and wealth and conspicuous consumption became the benchmarks of an individual's success.
"The onslaught of globalization has had a big impact on Taiwan. In the 1990s, there was localization movement. We wanted to promote and teach our children what Taiwan really is. I think the biggest obstacle to that movement is globalization. It's not the conservative KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) …. Younger people use computers and know a lot about the world and don't really care what is traditionally or indigenously Taiwanese," he said.
Chi's unrelenting and hard-hitting criticism of contemporary Taiwan coupled with creative and caustic dialogue have garnered him plaudits from colleagues and critics. His 2003 play, Deja Vu (驚異派對:夜夜夜麻2), won the 3rd Annual Taishin award for performance art, a prestigious accolade that has been bestowed on groups such as Cloud Gate Dance Theater (雲門舞集), U-Theater (優劇場) and National Gouguang Opera Company (國立國光劇團).
Deja Vu was the second play in a trilogy that began with Mahjong Game (夜夜夜麻), a work in which four men in their 50s reminisce about their college days, the dreams they had and the dreams they failed to achieve. Deja Vu compared some of the same characters with a younger, financially successful generation of characters in their 40s who, fed up with politics, spend their time focused on making money.