American director Robert Wilson said his new production with Taiwan’s U-Theatre (優劇場), 1433 — The Grand Voyage (鄭和1433), would be a journey of exploration. Saturday night at the National Theater, he certainly delivered on that promise.
What a wonderful journey 1433 was, beginning with giant white-clad Eskimos moving slowly across a white expanse, before taking off for Africa, China, Vietnam and Malacca.
U-Theatre director Liu Ruo-yu (劉若瑀) crafted a script that told the story of Ming dynasty explorer Zheng He (鄭和) — played silently by her husband Huang Chih-chun (黃誌群) — through flashbacks. While Zheng explored the world for his emperor, his story is also one of loss and longing, for like so many imperial officials, he had been made a eunuch as a child.
The stars of the show were Taiwanese gezai (歌仔) diva Tang Mei-yun (唐美雲), saxophonist Richard “Dickie” Landry and costume designer Tim Yip (葉錦添).
Tang had the audience in the palm of her hand. First seen as a crippled old man with a beard down to his knees, the white-face Tang metamorphosed into dapper MC in black pants, suspenders and a white shirt, a motorcycle mama in a black leather vest, cap and chains, a bluesy crooner in shades and a fedora and a mustachioed comic (with a mustache that was a mix of Charlie Chaplin and Chinese Nationalist Party Secretary-General King Pu-tsung [金溥聰]). She hobbled, strutted, swaggered, did a Cajun two-step, sang, talked, and riffed with Landry like she was Ella Fitzgerald.
The most amazing thing about Tang’s duets with Landry was that he — like any good jazz musician — is improvising all the time and she plays along. Every show, they are making their own journeys.
Then there were the costumes. This show needs to go to London or New York just so Yip can win an Oliver or a Tony. His designs were brilliant, turning elements of traditional Chinese court dress into something extraordinary. General Ma Huan (馬歡) — played by Huang Kun-ming (黃焜明) — wears a three-tiered hat that looks like a miniature pagoda, while aide Fei Shin (費信) — played by Huang Kuo-chung (黃國忠) — had the most amazing triple-hoop skirt that often appeared to have a life of its own as he shimmied across the stage. Linking many of the costumes were the broad shoulder pads spiking off to each side that appeared, however, to have more in common with Ziggy Stardust or Kiss than Asian history. The African dancers’ costumes were a wonderful, whimsical mix of wooden facemasks and multi-layered stringed garments. Then there was Queen Lipo (麗波皇后), played by Liu, who looked like a 1950s glamour queen.
The cast and musicians came from U-Theatre and it was terrific to see some familiar faces doing very unfamiliar things, even though the usually graceful, fluid Huang Chih-chun was largely restricted to sharp, jerky moves.
The lighting, by American AJ Weissbard, washed the stage with strong reds or blues — or sometimes just Zheng He’s face or hands — or stripped it until it resembled a black-and-white snapshot.
Wilson has been both praised and criticized for creating “a series of stage pictures” in his works, but for 1433 these pictures are worth a thousand words: the sea of clouds, the black-and-white court scenes, a wonderful giraffe, a sailing junk of rectangular bamboo crates and a billowing square of white silk.