Theater in Taipei this year has achieved some notable heights and, unfortunately, some even more notable lows. The Jester (弄臣), a new Beijing opera production by Vivien Ku (辜懷群) and Li Baochun (李寶春) that had its world premiere at Novel Hall (新舞台) earlier this month, won accolades from audiences for its technical mastery and solid scriptwriting. Applause and bravos started only minutes into the first act of this adaptation of Verdi’s Rigoletto, a response that was in stark contrast to the ponderous silence and dutiful clapping that marked some recent fusion productions. People walked away at the end having been lifted up by the skill of the performance rather than being weighed down by its burden of innovation.
Far more traditional but equally successful was Six Legends of Lan Ting (蘭庭六記) by Lanting Kun Opera Troupe (蘭庭崑劇團), a relative newcomer to Taiwan’s traditional art scene, which played at Novel Hall in August. The main draw of this production was the outstanding performance by Wen Yuhang (溫宇航), who is best-known in the West for his starring role in the 19-hour 1999 Lincoln Center production of The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭). It is performances like these that give substance to talk of a kun opera revival, especially as an international performance medium similar to Italian opera.
On the debit side of the ledger, productions such as National Taiwan College of Performing Arts’ (國立臺灣戲曲學院) The Plum Blossom Fan (桃花扇) became a byword for how badly the integration of Western and Chinese opera can turn out. The Western-style score performed by the Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra (台北愛樂管弦樂團) under the energetic direction of conductor Liao Hsiao-ling (廖曉玲) managed to constantly trip up performers, denying them the natural rhythms of Chinese opera.
One of 2008’s biggest productions was undoubtedly CKS Cultural Foundation’s flagship production of Mackay — The Black Bearded Bible Man (黑鬚馬偕) that premiered at the National Theater late last month. Unfortunately, despite a sterling performance by Thomas Maglioranza in the title role, and a splendid stage design by Lukas Hemleb, the flimsy script and flaccid pacing let the production down. Looked at in the context of the many experimental operas that have been produced in recent years, one can see that the money and the high level support for Mackay — The Black Bearded Bible Man has certainly paid off in the quality of the presentation. What is missing is a creative sensibility to direct these resources to make something more satisfying than a bald narrative of a worthy life.
Tainaner Ensemble’s (台南人劇團) K24 Chaos, a six-hour, six-act whodunit play within a play that incorporates Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and employs a plotline similar to the television series Alias, opened to packed houses at the beginning of the year. It may seem strange to combine a love story using elements from a spy serial, but Tsai Po-chang’s (蔡柏璋) script made an admirable attempt and for the first two acts he pulled it off. Both staging and acting were tight and the story intricate and intriguing. But interest began to wane in the fourth act, or “episode,” as Tsai calls them, because the script tried to incorporate too many diverse plots into the story. Though the jokes and plot twists remained throughout, the production would have been better served if he had solved the mystery three hours earlier.