Mon, Jun 20, 2011 - Page 13 News List

The weekender: That’s entertainment!

By Ian Bartholomew and Diane Baker  /  Staff Reporters

The much-anticipated second installment of Contemporary Legend Theater’s (當代傳奇劇場) fusion epic, 108 Heroes II — The Hall of Righteousness (水滸108忠義堂), opened to a packed and excited house at the National Theater in Taipei City on Thursday. This was a great big circus of a production, with a huge cast, complex stage effects, and sumptuous costumes that mixed up Beijing opera, pop music, classical tragedy and cosplay posing. It was certainly much bigger than the first installment of the trilogy, and took even greater risks, and the first-night audience was entranced by the spectacle.

It was easy to see what Contemporary Legend was trying to achieve in this integration of traditional opera skills and a contemporary youth culture sensibility, and the effort is commendable. But in trying to drag Beijing opera into the 21st century, there is always a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater — and whether this happens in 108 Heroes has a lot to do with how one defines both baby and bathwater. In its effort to produce something that would engage the fashion and musical tastes of Asian youth and provide entertainment for both young and old, conventional aspects of theater such as character and narrative were snowed under by interminable efforts to ensure that everything in the two-hour show had a modern gloss. It looked good and it was undeniably contemporary, but for this reviewer at least, something crucial had been lost.

108 Heroes II suffers from all the difficulties of the second chapter of a trilogy — it is basically an extended preparation for the climactic final. A number of dramatic devices are used to introduce a huge cast of characters and provide something of a backstory for each, and also outline the central theme of this opera — the conflict between rebellion and loyalty. Considerable skill has gone into the contraction of this fractured narrative, which explores the tensions experienced by the bandits-turned-freedom fighters, some who are in it for the money and the mayhem, while others, such as bandit leader Song Jiang (宋江), would rather see the government reformed than overthrown.

But the need to provide entertainment is like a juggernaut that smashes through this finely wrought structure, with some rather tedious pop songs and hip-hop inflected dance numbers getting in the way of the effective buildup of dramatic tension. There is no arguing that the costumes are extremely lovely and show a protean invention, but the extravagant lighting and the distracting back-wall projection achieved little of any importance, and attempts to use animation to add an explanatory gloss to the on-stage action was at best amateurish, and at worst ridiculous. The appearance of a white horse above a funeral pyre to take the rebel leader Chao Gai (晁蓋) to his place in heaven caused titters of amusement at what ought to have been one of the show’s most dramatically powerful moments.

108 Heroes II is commendable for the breadth of its ambition, and for the energy and enterprise of its production, but Contemporary Legend tries too hard to please everyone.

‘DRAWER’

Germany-based Taiwanese freelance choreographer Lai Tsui-shuang (賴翠霜) didn’t have problems pleasing people this weekend. She wowed audiences at the Experimental Theater with Drawer (抽屜), the second installment in the National Theater Concert Hall’s 2011 New Idea Dance series. The piece is a well-thought out and flawlessly executed exploration of the memories and associations we keep hidden away in the drawers of our mind or our homes, set to a soundtrack that included genres as diverse as dreamy Mando-pop and blues.

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