Descent into madness

Taiwanese director Liu Liang-yen teams up with the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center to adapt Tennessee William’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

By Ho Yi  /  Staff reporter

Fri, Dec 07, 2012 - Page 12

Liu Liang-yen (劉亮延) has done something unusual with his adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire: he’s removed all male characters. Only the sisters, Blanche and Stella, are seen on stage, becoming the tragic heroines of their own making, unable to escape a web of jealousy, violence and madness.

“Stella plots to send Blanche away in order to protect her own family. It seems reasonable enough, but in fact it is utterly brutal and crude,” director and playwright Liu said of Williams’ famous play.

Blanche: a Bebop Musical is the final installment of the Physical Sentimental Theatre Company of Lee Qing Zhao the Private’s (李清照私人劇團) Anthomania (花癡) series composed of six theatrical pieces that Liu has created over the course of seven years.

Each work in the series dwells on female characters from literary classics — Cao Chi-chiao (曹七巧), a tragic figure from Eileen Chang’s (張愛玲) The Golden Cangue (金鎖記), for example, and the serpent figure of Bai Suzhen (白素貞) from The Tale of the White Snake (白蛇傳) — and explores dramatic forms through an ambitious blending of theatrical genres and traditions.

Liu described Blanche as a “conclusion” of what he has been exploring and experimenting with in his theatrical art.

“Everything is here: Beijing opera, kabuki theater and even the mise en scene monologue,” he said.

Liu’s latest production ups the bar even further with a jazz score created by award-winning composer Blair Ko (柯智豪). With the performance and music closely connected, the tone begins with the breezy songs of bossa nova, sinks into the blues in the middle and portrays the outburst of violence and cruelty in the latter part with lightning fast bebop tempos.

To Liu, it is an artistic breakthrough to play with different rhythms and narrative flows within one work.

“The inspiration comes from jazz, which is so free,” he said. “Tennessee Williams’ play is essentially a work of melodrama. We are finding different ways to edit the melodramatic form.”

Liu said that he originally sought government funding for the production, but was repeatedly turned down. But as luck would have it, an acquaintance at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center (上海話劇藝術中心) heard about his predicament and within a month offered to collaborate on the production. The arts center eventually gave the company a budget of NT$2.5 million, enabling the company to produce its biggest show to date.

Ma Qingli (馬青莉) will play Blanche and Han Shuang (韓霜) will take the role of Stella.

“The theme of immigration emerged after we knew we were going to collaborate with Shanghai,” the director said. “Here you have this anachronistic woman coming to a new city. She is completely out of tune with the world around her and eventually ends up in a madhouse.”

In Liu’s rendition of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is a cultured Southern lady who received a Japanese-language education when growing up in Tainan. To escape the crumbling life in her hometown, the heroine seeks refuge in her sister Stella’s working-class household in 1950s Sanchong (三重), then a burgeoning industrial town.

Stage designer Lo Chih-hsin (羅智信), an up-and-coming artist whose works mostly involve ready-made objects, said that all of the props are everyday items he collected and salvaged from junkyards. The stage design and costumes first appear fine and glittery; gradually, however, as the characters descend into madness, these visual elements turn into a chaotic mess so as to reflect the protagonists’ mental state.

To Liu, the idea of collecting junk is the most important message that “the production, or even Taiwan, for that matter” has to offer.

“We weren’t aware of the fact that we’d become recyclers until we went to China, where everything is new and efficient,” the director said. “Then it hit us: ‘Oh, that’s right. We now recycle junk,’” Liu said.

After its Taipei premiere, Blanche: a Bebop Musical will be staged at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center for 24 performances from January through February next year.