Contemporary Legend Theater (當代傳奇劇場) is famed for having created some of the most intriguing and imaginative adaptations of works taken from the Western literary canon. Twenty-two years ago it caused a sensation in Chinese operatic circles with The Kingdom of Desire (慾望城國), a bold, and some would say sacrilegious, repackaging of Beijing opera to tell the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. With the group’s newest production, Run, Chekov, a musical that weaves 14 of the writer’s short stories into a single narrative, founder and artistic director Wu Hsing-kuo (吳興國) is preparing to shake things up once again.
Challenging the established order is, Wu says, a matter of necessity if Contemporary Legend is to survive as a permanent company, one able to foster its own talent and provide a stage for operatic artists to practice their skills and develop in an environment with limited opportunities for younger performers of traditional opera.
During an interview with the Taipei Times, Wu sat on a low, white plastic stool in the cavernous space of the East Second Hall (東二館) of Huashan 1914 Creative Park (華山1914). Wearing a massive black cape and pallid makeup, he resembled a dressed-down Phantom of the Opera. And the similarities with Andrew Lloyd Webber do not end there — Run, Chekov resembles a modern musical far more than it does even the most adventurous Chinese opera-oriented compositions in Contemporary Legend’s repertoire.
Wu insists that he has not abandoned the core traditions of his artistic development, and reiterated his profound faith in the skills and training that have made him the versatile performer that he is today. Contemporary Legend continues to put on highly traditional performances that highlight the great achievements of Beijing opera, such as last year’s The Legendary Pear Garden (梨園傳奇), but Wu believes that such productions, steeped as they are in tradition, are insufficient. He says that the first phase of his artistic revolution, embodied in productions like The Kingdom of Desire, is also not enough.
What: Run, Chekov (歡樂時光 ─ 契訶夫傳奇) by Contemporary Legend Theater (當代傳奇劇場)
When: Until Oct. 31. Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 4:30pm
Where: Huashan 1914 Creative Park (華山1914), East Second Hall (東二館), 1, Bade Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市八德路一段1號)
Tickets: Weekday tickets are NT$500 to NT$900, weekend tickets are NT$600 to NT$1,000, available through NTCH ticketing or online at www.artsticket.com.tw
Language: In Mandarin and Taiwanese with Chinese and English subtitles for sung sections
“Productions like these play to the festival circuit,” producer Lin Hsiu-wei (林秀偉) said, while traditional performances attract a niche audience of aficionados, old folk and tourists searching for the exotic. With Run, Chekov, Contemporary Legend aims to directly tap into contemporary issues and styles, in search of the elusive holy grail of a contemporary Chinese musical.
The conception of Run, Chekov is bold, and also topical in that it falls on the 150th anniversary of the great Russian author’s birth. Wu said he had the idea of reworking some of Chekov’s stories into his own work almost a decade ago, and Lin underlined the many points that made Chekov such an appealing author for such a project.
“Many of Taiwan’s older generation of authors read the Russians, and where influenced by their attachment and understanding of the importance of the land to the human spirit,” Lin said. “Authors like Chekov had a great resonance with Taiwanese authors writing about rural environments under threat from economic forces that made some rich, while pushing others beyond the limits of poverty. They had a great understanding of the emotional forces that came into play.”
She also suggested that modern Russian writers, situated between a Western and Asian mentality, wrote stories that are immediately accessible to Taiwanese audiences, which are influenced by traditional Chinese and Western liberal values.