School of Drama starts season with Chinese drama

Gao Xingjian’s The Other Shore is the first Chinese play to be incorporated into the School of Drama’s regular season. Xingjian is also the first person of Chinese descent to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he won in 2000.

His plays usually do not follow conventional narrative models and The Other Shore is no exception.

This certainly isn’t the usual play at the Purnell Center for the Arts.

A play can involve anything from elaborate stage designs and lighting schemes to detailed costumes, sound effects, and many props.

Director Tang Shuwing was influenced by Grotowski’s idea of “poor theatre” and agrees with Xingjian about focusing on what is essential to the performance: the actors and their words. Minimal makeup was used and costume changes signified new characters or scenes. Some lighting effects were used to dramatize certain scenes.

Performed in the Philip Chosky Theater, the stage was reconfigured to accommodate the notes Xingjian wrote with the play. He said that the performance should be in an open environment, with the actors among the audience, and the audience among the actors.

The stage was completely white, with seats placed on the stage on an escalating platform. As patrons entered the theater, the actors were standing in a circle, dressed in loose black clothing. With their eyes closed, heads bowed, it appeared as if they were meditating.

The play itself surrounds a theme of Buddhism and a general storyline of a group of people attempting to reach Nirvana, or as it sometimes referred to, “the other shore.”

Once patrons are seated, the usual call for silencing cell phones is heard as the actors remain motionless on stage.

Suddenly, one actor speaks and engages the ensemble in a game. The actors don’t appear to be specific characters, but rather a collection of fellow actors on stage engaging in a game with ropes. As the leading actor states, the ropes are used to demonstrate relationships between the two people holding them, and with everyone else. This first scene demonstrates the origins of the play, which was an exercise for actors.

The play continues and the lead actor calls for everyone to follow him to the other shore. As the lights die out and a blue glow falls over the stage, the cast clasp hands and realistically portray wading through a river and fighting through rapids. The journey is tumultuous and rough with groups breaking apart and trying to reconnect to one another.

Once reaching the other shore, the group has become the Crowd and seems disappointed with their side of the shore; there is no Nirvana.

A woman appears in front of the seated Crowd who seems to have lost the ability to speak. Through gesture and repetition she teaches them language and they excitedly demonstrate their new skill.

The Crowd turns violent, reminiscent of the young boys stranded in The Lord of the Flies, and murder the woman who gave them the gift of language.

As the play progresses, themes of conformity, abandonment, aimlessness, and individualism appear. One man becomes the focus for the rest of the play as he is followed by the Crowd. He encounters frustration as he does not know where he is going, and meets a character who he calls “the devil.” The Crowd has been easily manipulated throughout the piece and falls to the wits of this card-playing man.

Other characters weave in and out of the performance, but the focus returns to the one man from before who is still lost.

One scene had very striking images as the lost man finds himself surrounded by mannequins. Two screens came down blocking both the audience on stage and in the theater from getting a full clear view of the man among the mannequins.

The play ends much in the same fashion that it began, with the cast on stage, interacting with one another as friends.

Audience members had mixed reactions, although there was a generally positive attitude to the performance.

Destiny Ridguard, a sophomore professional writing major, felt that the show “was definitely interesting ... and unique. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen here so far.”

Marquis Wood, a first-year musical theater major, said, “It was absolutely mind-blowing.”

The actors in the performance commanded the stage with their presence, able to possess and portray different characters believably throughout the show and sometimes even in a single scene. They even interact with the audience members, speaking to them and running up and down the aisles.

On the surface, the show seems scattered and almost unconnected; there does not seem to be a linear narrative story. When given further thought, and after reading the program, a deeper sense of understanding can be found for the theme of the play.

A journey, a quest, a yearning to reach something deemed unattainable; these themes among others encompass the plot and draw audiences in for an unforgettable show.