Thu, May 11, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Earning an A

Powerful paintings by Ko Shu-ling are transformed by multi-media artist Ethan Wang into stunning projections that provide both backdrop and context to U-Theatre’s Taoist tales-inspired production

By Diane Baker  /  Staff reporter

U-Theatre’s latest production, Dao, performed at the National Theater in Taipei last weekend, was a terrific return to form for the troupe.

photo Courtesy of Lin Jin-chu

It is too bad avant-garde Polish director and teacher Jerzy Grotowski died 18 years ago because he would surely have given his former student, U-Theatre (優人神鼓) founder and director Liu Ruo-yu (劉若瑀), an “A” for her company’s latest work, Dao (墨具五色).

Liu often talks about the impact her year at Grotowski’s forest retreat workshop in California had on her life and her work.

Even though she was an accomplished stage actress before earning a masters’ degree in theater arts from New York University, the next year spent with Grotowski challenged Liu’s assumptions about the theater, about performing and about herself.

He taught that theater should be an expression of an individual’s attitude toward life, and that training should be aimed at nurturing the inner spirit of each performer.

While she founded U-Theatre in 1988, with a focus on Taiwanese folk rituals, it was not until she began working with Adan (黃誌群, Huang Chih-chun) a few years later that the essentials of the company took shape: a mix of drumming, martial arts and taichi, meditation and long, long walks.

Liu said that with Dao, she felt as if she had finally completed a homework assignment from Grotowski, just 35 years late.

Dao is a near perfect compilation of all that Liu and Adan have been working toward over the past two decades, while raising the bar for theatrical visuals that they set with the swirling vortex finale to 2011’s Beyond Time (時間之外).

Thanks to the ink and watercolor “splash” paintings of Ko Shu-ling (柯淑玲), the technical wizardry of multi-media artist Ethan Wang (王奕盛) and Lin Keh-hua ‘s (林克華) lighting, Dao is visually stunning, whether one is seated in the orchestra section or up in the nosebleed seats.

I saw the show from both places. I liked the visuals — and all the rest — so much on Friday night from my ground floor press ticket seat that I bought a ticket for Saturday night’s show from the few that were left on the fourth floor.

However, it is Liu and Huang’s interpretations of selected teachings of Taoist sages Lao Tzu (老子) and Chuang Tzu (莊子) that are at the heart of the seven part piece — as they cleverly bring those teachings to life.

Part one, which is about Lao Tzu’s discussion of the emptiness of the universe at the beginning of time, sees white cloud-like shapes drifting across a scrim at the front of the stage as a woman holding a gong leads five others in a slow-moving procession from right to left across the stage. As they walk, other members of the troupe push drums from out of the black void at the back, while the projections shift to a lower horizontal, so it looks as if the performers are moving below the surface of a body of water.

Part four, which is about Chuang Tzu’s tale of a master butcher who becomes one with the cow he must kill, is cleverly illustrated by constructing a ramshackle-looking sculpture out of five or six pieces of wood and slanted benches. Once it is built, Adan and two other men take turns thrusting a long wooden pole through it with motions that combine a powerful build-up and slow delivery — much like the dancing with drums and gongs later in the show.

Each time the pole moves through the sculpture, the audience holds its breath as if to ensure a gust of air does not topple the structure.

The segments segue from ones that focus on explosive drumming on a brightly lit stage to more reflective, slower moving ones that are infused by the blacks, greys, whites and colors of Ko’s paintings as Wang teases them out from small dots of light to full-length backdrops to moving vertical scrolls to stunning waterfalls.

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