The National Theater Concert Hall’s (NTCH) Innovation Series is a showcase of contemporary theater that this year looks back over three decades of cutting-edge theatrical productions by some of the top names in Taiwanese theater, interpreting them through the eye of a new generation of directors and performers. The series of three productions opens with Bach Variations — Rebirth (變奏巴哈 — 末日再生), first created by Stan Lai (賴聲川) in 1985, but which still reflects the boldness and depth that have made Lai a theatrical superstar.
The other two works to make up this mini festival are Mary Marlin Jony Jonathan (瑪莉瑪蓮 — 強尼強納森), a seminal work created in 1995 by Critical Point Theater Phenomenon (臨界點劇象錄劇團), which opens next week. The festival is rounded off by No Comment! Nonstop! (無可奉告—188.8.131.52.0.全面啟動), a play by the doyen of Taiwan’s playwrights Chi Wei-jan (紀蔚然), first performed in 2001 by the Creative Society Theater Company (創作社劇團).
All three works are considered milestones in the development of contemporary theater in Taiwan.
Speaking about his reworking of Bach Variations — Rebirth (變奏巴哈 — 末日再生) earlier this week, director Yang Ching-hsiang (楊景翔) said he was amazed at how far ahead of its time the original work had been.
“It was only after I had seen Lai’s later works, such as Mumble Jumble (亂民全講) and A Dream Like a Dream (如夢之夢) that I realized that this work contained the seeds of many later works,” Yang said.
The structure of Lai’s original Bach Variations was tightly linked with the music of JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, and Yang said that Lai had intended to create a theatrical work based on the structure of a fugue.
“There are a series of dramatic moments that superficially have little relationship to one another, but they are like themes and melodies that are woven into a piece of music, creating a whole that reflects the fluid and indeterminate nature of human relationships.”
Lai used the structure of the music as his main point of departure, but Yang has found his own focus in his reworking. “The way the play moved forward was very much like a river, pulling the characters along in its current,” Yang said, explaining his reconfiguration of the Experimental Theater space as a passage between seats on either side. “The audience stand on the banks of the river and watches the story flow past.”
Yang said that in the 30 years since Lai first produced Bach Variations, works using similar structural devices have proliferated. “In looking at this play, it is a chance for audiences to see experimental theater at the beginning of its development in Taiwan. Experimental theater these days can get caught up in stylistic gimmicks, especially things like multimedia. But in essence, not that much has changed. Bach Variations has an old-school purity. Even though they were experimenting with style, at that time the actual content was still very down to earth,” Yang said.
“It’s good to look back at a time when experimental theater was still in its infancy. There is an emotional power to this work that is absent from some later experimental theater, which has become obsessed with stylistic or formalistic issues. It gives us a chance to reassess contemporary experimental theater, and rediscover the balance between inaccessible games related to drama theory, and the emotional aspect of theater,” Yang said, lamenting the gulf that has grown between experimental theater and commercial theater.
This look back to experimental theater in Taiwan 30 years ago might be a chance to find a better balance between the two.