Working within a classical model but finding room for creativity is something that pervades all aspects of the production. Lai Hsuan-wu (賴宣吾), who designed the costumes for Tsui Hark’s (徐克) film Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (龍門飛甲), has created a sumptuous collection of costumes that look traditional at first glance, but the pictorial motifs and styles of embroidery are the designer’s own.
Another aspect of Nanke Dream that should be emphasized is the large number of “hualien” (花臉) character types in the performance. The “hualien” is a specialist character who has some affinity to the clown in requiring highly exaggerated and sometimes acrobatic movements and expressions. The Jiangsu Province Kun Opera Theater is one of the very few kun opera companies that has the depth of talent to field such a line up, a result of the investment of time and money that kun has obtained as a result of its growing visibility on the traditional arts scene.
The story of Nanke Dream is well known. An unsuccessful scholar takes a nap under a tree and has a dream. In the dream he enters an imaginary kingdom where he becomes involved in court politics, rises to high position, marries a princess, and finally, after a life full of incident, is devastated when his wife dies. He takes up a dissolute lifestyle and is exiled by the king, but eventually wakes to discover that the kingdom he imagined himself in was no more than the ant colony on which he slept. The opera is heavily informed by Buddhist ideas of the emptiness of being, while the performance itself, with its delightful characters and subtle characterization, is clearly utterly in love with being.