The premiere of Contemporary Legend Theater’s (當代傳奇劇場) revamped production of Medea (樓蘭女) on Thursday was packed with the great and the good of the art world, eager to see, or revisit, one of Taiwan’s most successful dramatic experiments. The show starred the two original leads from the 1993 production, with Beijing opera diva Wei Hai-min (魏海敏) in the title role and Contemporary Legend’s founder Wu Hsing-kuo (吳興國) as Jason, the man who betrays her.
Both put on strong performances, though Wei was noticeably struggling with her costume — designed by Tim Yip (葉錦添) for the 1993 production and now inextricably associated with the show — in one scene. Sound reproduction was also an issue, with one instance of the microphones cutting out. The problem had not been fixed by the second night, according to a friend who saw the performance on Friday, a fact that reflects badly on what is generally regarded as Taiwan’s foremost theater.
These technical problems aside, the production was undeniably spectacular, though it may be argued that Lin Keh-hua’s (林克華) new and extravagant set muted the effect of Yip’s costumes, which might have been more expressive against a starker background — a possible case of more is less.
The balance between the recorded music and the live singing might also have been altered in favor of the former, as Wei’s voice, powerful as it is, seemed sometimes to be almost overwhelmed. Her struggle, it seemed, was not primarily against her violent passions, but against a mixing board that wasn’t giving her the breaks.
For all the above nitpicking, the revival of Medea, with its startlingly original music by Hsu Po-yun (�?�) and stylized beauty of the actors, both individually and as elements within an organically conceived performance space, shows the wealth of potential that exists within Taiwanese theater.
Technology was also a major part of a much smaller production at the Experimental Theater this weekend. The Drought Goddess (大神魃) by the Ethan Chen Production House (野墨坊) had plenty of good ideas and excellent work contributed by musicians, animators, calligraphers, painters and performers. Its multimedia presentation outshone many more expensive and high-profile productions, and the way it managed to play with aspects of traditional theater was really quite impressive.
A tap-dance nanguan (南管) aria with pipa (�? and percussion was splendid to behold, and deserved applause — unfortunately, the audience had, by that time, been so numbed by the ponderous layering of technical effects and tortuously slow story development that they proved totally unable to respond.
The use of a made-up language combining various dialects was quite interesting for some of the musical effects it created, but after an hour or so, the device began to wear a bit thin. When the performers moved into traditional nanguan singing, it was not difficult to appreciate the musical sophistication of centuries of development over something that was first developed a couple of months ago.
In many aspects of presentation, The Drought Goddess punched well above its weight, but ultimately, lacking both a comprehensible structure and a strong directorial eye to keep things in their place, this grab-bag of good ideas dragged, sagged and spread out in all the wrong places.