Tue, Sep 12, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Fun with Faust

Contemporary Legendary Theatre’s blending of Beijing opera and Goethe’s legendary tale is uneven, but could be a great show one day

By Diane Baker  /  Staff reporter

Contemporary Legendary Theatre premiered its latest production, Faust, at Taipei’s Zhongshan Hall on Friday last week as part of the Taipei Arts Festival.

Photo Courtesy of Kuo Cheng-chang

The Contemporary Legend Theatre (當代傳奇劇場), Taiwan’s jingju (Beijing opera, 京劇)-fusion troupe may be small, but artistic director Wu Hsing-kuo (吳興國) has never let it hold them back from tackling big plays. His one-man show of Shakespeare’s King Lear was a testament to that.

However, with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s monumental Faust, Wu and scriptwriter/choreographer Lin Hsiu-wei (林秀偉) might have bitten off more than they could chew.

I say might, because the production I saw at Taipei’s Zhongshan Hall on Saturday night as part of the Taipei Arts Festival has a lot of potential, but needs some reworking and trimming to become a strong piece for the troupe.

There is a reason why most theatrical or operatic versions of Faust stick with part I of Goethe’s magnum opus; there is just too much to cover in part II.

I certainly got the feeling that the company was rushing to wrap up its Act II to be able to finish the show within three hours: After Faust meets Helen of Troy and their son, Euphorion, is killed in battle, video montages are used to speed through the storyline to get Faust back to his library.

Since the montages are by visual projection master — and the go-to-man for dance and theater troupes such as Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) — Ethan Wang (王奕盛), they are stunning, but it did seem like rifling through the pages of a huge book to get from page 500 to 900 in order to read the last 10 pages and finish the story.

However, there is so much to like in this production.

Wu remains at the height of his powers, transitioning from a very old Faust to Mephistopheles and back again.

All 11 performers played a multitude of roles. The young Chu Po-cheng (朱柏澄), who plays the younger Faust as well as Mephistopheles, and gets to show of his jingju acrobatic skills as the court jester, was very good.

Jolin Huang’s (黃若琳) made a stronger impression as Gretchen, than Chang Shuo-ting (張碩庭) did as Helen, while Huang Yi-hao (黃逸豪 ) stood out as the emperor and Lin Sheng-lun (林聖倫) as his prime minister.

The costumes by Kang Yan-ling (康延齡) were stunning, especially Faust’s fur robe, and the witches’ hill tribe-influenced costumes, which came with their massive headpieces and masks created by Chang Wang (張忘).

Architect Ricky Liu’s (劉培森) two-level modular design was far more complicated than many of the company’s sets for previous productions. It worked well for the most part, with the walls of books in Faust’s library turning around to become city walls, and a space at the upper right for key musicians, but then the boulder-strewn “Limbo” section that opens Act II looked slapdash.

Wang’s projections were stunning as always, especially the burning tree in the initial scene, the starry sky for the Limbo section, the crashing waves of the beginning of the Helen segment, and the skeleton-like face of Mephistopheles and Wu as the older Faust that loom above the set towards the end of Act II.

The two surtitle screens on either side of the stage provided crisp, easy to read Chinese characters and English translations of the dialogue and songs, which were in a modern vernacular, rather than more classical style.

Perhaps this was a concession designed to win over a younger audience — a problem faced by opera troupes the world over, but it did make for some jarring moments.

I was not expecting Faust, lamenting about the years he spent closeted in his library, to say “Who am I but a nerd?” — or the jester to joke about “taking a shit” — or Mephistopheles, when asked by Faust what he was digging to say: “Your grave, bro.”

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