Since 1988, the National Theater has played host to the New Idea Theater Festival (新點子劇展), which features a selection of the best local experimental theater. The 2008 incarnation of this event opens today with a production of Liou Ching-ti’s Hell (劉青提的地獄) by the Taiwan Bangzi Company (台灣豫劇團), directed by Malaysian-born Fu Hung-cheng (符宏征). This will establish the theme of the festival, which runs to Dec. 28 and includes two other productions that are also experiments based on traditional opera styles.
This theme of variations on tradition is highly appropriate for a year that has seen an almost unprecedented number of large-scale productions that sought
to give new life to traditional theater with an infusion of contemporary or Western blood.
“In the last two or three years, we have hoped that groups can find a path that leads from the traditional arts to something new,” said Liu Chiung-shu (劉瓊淑), artistic director of the CKS Cultural Center (國立中正文化中心). Tonight’s performance is based on Henan opera, also called bangzi (梆子). The second production in the series draws from the traditions of nanguan (南管) and beiguan (北管), and the final production takes qun (崑) opera as its point of departure.
The transfusion of new elements into a centuries-old tradition is a dangerous business, and over the last few years several very high-profile productions have barely survived the operation. With such bold experimentation it is often advisable to start small and, if nothing else, the shorter running times of these productions, which are to be staged in the National Theater’s Experimental Theater, will certainly make them more easily digestible for audiences.
A string of directors, producers and actors interviewed in recent years have all commented on the richness of the Chinese operatic tradition and the many things it has to offer modern theater. But how to repackage it for audiences who lack a detailed knowledge of Chinese history and legend, or the patience to sit through three-hour epics, has proved a challenge.
Tonight’s premiere of Liou Ching-ti’s Hell brings together Henan opera performers with the veteran experimental theater director Fu Hung-cheng. It is based on the popular Buddhist tale Mu Lien Saves His Mother (目蓮救母). According to Fu, the current production departs from tradition in focusing on the psychological factors that led Mu Lien’s mother, the Liou Ching-ti of the title, to deserve the terrible fate of being dragged by demons to the very deepest levels of Hell. The story incorporates elements from other famous stories of women embittered by the oppressiveness of society, and through the device of the double stage incorporates modern scenes in which the “hell on Earth” that Liou created for herself before her descent into Hell can be juxtaposed against dilemmas in modern society.
“We have kept the beautiful singing of Henan opera and also many of the movements,” Fu said, “but this is integrated with many techniques of contemporary experimental theater. We hope in this way to bring new audiences to traditional opera.”
The second production in the series, The Drought Goddess (大神魃) by Ethan Chen Production House (野墨坊), runs from Dec. 19 through Dec. 21. Li Ling, the Abandoned Hero (半世英雄 — 李陵) by 1/2Q Theater, is the third production and plays from Dec. 25 through Dec. 28. Tickets for all performances are NT$500 from NTCH ticketing.