nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
November 27, 2005
Appearing at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University for only five days, Lao She’s Teahouse provides a rare and exciting theatrical experience for those who have the opportunity to take advantage of it. Finishing a five-city U.S. tour, Beijing People’s Art Theatre in collaborations with Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America has brought one of the most popular modern plays in China to New York for the first time. An influential Chinese novelist born in 1899, Lao She lived through the major transformations of modern China from the Boxer Rebellion to the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) by Mao Zedong. Teahouse is a thoughtful and fascinating look at the rapid changes in Chinese history during his lifetime.
Teahouse is in three acts, with each act set in a different time period. Act One takes place during a day in 1898 after the failed One Hundred Days Reform Movement that foreshadowed the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Here we are introduced to Master Wang’s bustling teahouse and the customers who patronize it. Wang, an apolitical and practical entrepreneur whose philosophy is to try to get everyone to like him by being polite to everyone, minds his own business and tries to scrape by as deals are made, arguments are fought, and gossip is exchanged around him. The second act jumps to 1918, with China in the throes of civil war, and the third act occurs during a day in 1945 under the corrupt rule of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Party.
The show is performed in Mandarin; audience members who need an English translation can follow along with English subtitles provided by a large screen above the stage. Headphones providing a simultaneous audio translation did not appear to be available on the night I attended, however, so those unprepared or unable to follow written subtitles should be forewarned.
A parade of dozens of characters and scenarios from the trivial to the tragic flow through Wang’s establishment, and their ever-shifting positions and problems are the result of the disconcerting instability of the changing times. The individual faces, arguments, hopes, and tragedies may vary with the fluctuating political forces ruling China, but in spite of all the turmoil, certain continuities remain, such as the enervating influence of foreign powers, the corruption of state officials, and the poverty and misery of the Chinese peasant. This is reflected in Wang’s customers, who change even while the basic the elements of society they represent continue to exist.
For example, Master Chang may be a privileged Manchu bannerman during the Qing Dynasty, but under the KMT he is reduced to selling peanuts for a living. His character, however, remains constant in his generosity to those less fortunate and in his distaste for the influence of westerners upon his country. The pimp Pock-Mark Lui may be in trouble with the law in 1918, but his son is still carrying on a variation of the family business under the blessing of the new regime twenty years later. It may be a cliché to say that the more things change, the more things stay the same, but in Teahouse it is an engrossing and convincing meditation. What better place is there to consider this idea than in a social gathering place of one of the most consistently stable civilizations in history, during the period spanning its most recent and unpredictable upheavals?
Established in 1952, Beijing People’s Art Theatre has dedicated itself to naturalistic drama since its inception, and its remount of the play it pioneered in 1958 bears many resemblances in style to the classic works of Ibsen, Chekhov, and O’Neill. Nevertheless, Teahouse also seems refreshingly un-Western in the way it pulls back from the individual dramas to cast a panoramic look at society as a whole. The acting style of this enormous cast supports this. There are no flashy standout performances by actors chewing up the scenery. The company instead works as a true and effective ensemble, with each solid and reliable performance, from the major character of Wang to the customers quietly going about their business in the background, working quietly to support the overall piece.
What also makes this event remarkable is the lavish scale of this production. With a cast of more than 30 actors, Teahouse has a grandeur that would be unheard of for an off-Broadway drama produced by a U.S. theatre company. Crowds of customers, soldiers, and students pass through and behind the many storylines featured in this work, giving the play a rich texture one would normally see only in film. Likewise, the production elements match the cast in scope and detail. Using the design of the original production, the massive and evolving set of this remount artfully informs the audience of the culture and times, and along with the fantastic costumes, gives an immediate sense of all the changes that have taken place during the spans of years between each jump in time.
In the third act, two storytellers lament to an aged Wang that their profession has been replaced by pop songs and trashy musicals. One might be tempted to make the same observation about much of theatre today. The arrival of Teahouse in New York would argue the opposite, scoring a small victory for thoughtful and enlightening stories told with talent, artistry, and style.