The Bus Stop
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 27, 2009
I was very interested in seeing Theatre HAN's debut production, the New York premiere of The Bus Stop by Gao Xingjian. Gao won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. This is among the first New York presentations of any of Gao's plays.
Written in 1983, The Bus Stop is described as being written in the style of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and this is certainly true and provides a familiar point of entry into the piece. Eight disparate characters wait at a bus stop, and the bus never comes. A couple of times, at the beginning, a bus seems to be about to pick these folks up, but inevitably it whizzes right past them. While they wait, they banter, they argue, they debate, they fight, they fume. The difference between Gao's play and Beckett's is that, eventually, they learn.
Another important distinction is that Gao plays with time in an interesting way. After the would-be passengers have waited for what seems like an hour or so, one of them looks at his watch—and he announces that a day has past. Later, whole years are said to have elapsed. Time is fluid in the world of The Bus Stop, because the most urgent lesson Gao wants us to take from his play, I think, is that time is so scarce, and sacred, and easily wasted.
Each of the people waiting at this bus stop has an objective, of great or meager significance. The most important personage in the group, corrupt Director Ma, is going to town to meet some potential business collaborators for a dinner; as he becomes increasingly frustrated that he won't actually be getting to town anytime soon, he tells the others that he can have just as good a dinner in their local village (though of course he never acts on that promise/threat). A very old man is on his way to a chess match; a carpenter is planning to teach his trade (making beautiful Chinese furniture in the style handed down to him by his ancestors) to budding apprentices; a young man wearing glasses is heading toward his college entrance exam; a young woman is to meet a potential suitor; and a harried mother is bringing this week's laundry to her husband and child who work in the city. As the wait grows interminable, and the elements conspire against them (they suffer through rain and snow and hail and darkness), we begin to understand—and they do too—that perhaps some of what they are looking for at the end of this elusive bus ride is available to them right here and now.
For here's where Gao diverges most from Beckett and surprises an audience that thinks it knows how a play like this "goes": he makes hope not just a dream but something palpable and attainable. I will not reveal the ending, which is executed with something approaching chutzpah by director Samantha Schectman and the company. But it will tell you that it's wondrously refreshing, especially given the repressive circumstances Gao lived through when he created this piece.
Theatre HAN deserves kudos for bringing this piece to the New York stage in so thoroughly persuasive and entertaining a fashion. Schectman's own set design—a very simple rendering of a bus stop that can be rotated so that the audience, seated in an in-the-round arrangement, gets a different perspective on the action every few minutes—is elegant and serves the work beautifully. The actors do fine work, with particular standouts being Adam Bedri as "Hothead," a young ruffian, and Alice Oh (also Theatre HAN's artistic director) as the young woman—it is perhaps not coincidental that these two characters seem to travel the greatest psychological distance during the play.
I love that sheer size and diversity of New York's theatre community means that audiences here are often able to see the works of major though unfamiliar writers like Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian. Those interested in discovering this dissident Chinese artist will want to take in The Bus Stop before it closes.