What do you get when a group of boundary-breaking artists mixes traditional Taiwanese opera with rock 'n' roll, Japanese manga and a story from 18th-century Italy? Hou pei la (胡撇仔) reinvigorated; a plebeian theatrical form that prevailed in Taiwan under Japanese rule.
The Taiwanese pronunciation of "opera," hou pei la, came along as a linguistic and artist hybrid when local culture was suppressed and Western influences took hold. Modern theaters joined Taiwanese operatic sounds with the saxophone and jazz drum to accompany pop songs. Stories inspired by pop culture were set to this music and performed by actors in kimonos or carrying samurai swords.
The form's whimsical, custom-defying nature is the basis of Formosa-Zephyr Opera Troupe (台灣春風歌劇團), a four-year-old Taiwanese group founded by graduates from National Taiwan (國立台灣大學) and National Taiwan Normal (國立台灣師範大學) universities. They searched for new possibilities by pushing the limits of the old art form.
The company's latest experiment examines the marriage between hou pei la and commedia dell'arte, an improvisational theater that enjoyed great popularity in Italy from the 15th to 18th centuries. Performed by traveling artists, the Italian folk theater form was characterized by clowns, rogues, lovers and doctors, a rough storyline and an open structure freely adjusted to current events and regional tastes, all of which share similarities in form with its Taiwanese operatic twin.
Following the storyline of Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni's 1747 comedy of the same title, The Venetian Twins tells of a story of twin brothers separated at birth. The grown-up twins accidentally cross paths in Venice, leading to a series of comic farces.
Transplanted to contemporary Taiwan, the renaissance Venetian characters become taike (台客), gangster, zhainan (宅男) (computer nerd), and funu (腐女), a word imported from Japan for straight girls who like gay male romance films and comics. Tricks and aerobatics, in the tradition of Italian theater, are localized and updated in the form of jazz dance, fencing moves and martial-arts kicks and punches.
The show's discipline-bending music is provided by four rockers who blast out bass and electric guitar tunes alongside side a traditional ensemble that plays operatic tunes, rock sounds and a few genres in between.
The venetian Twins is at the NTU Theater tonight at 7:30pm; Saturday at 2:30pm and 7:30pm; Sunday at 2:30pm. On the Net: www.zephry-opera.org.tw.