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Flash Review 1, 7-26: The Theater of Silence
From Hong Kong, and the Genies of the Mime Troupe, "15 Strings of Cash"

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- What happens when you combine the plot of a Chinese opera with the stage sensibilities of the San Francisco Mime Troupe accompanied by musicians blending East and West into a tailor-made score for a silent movie? Give up? "15 Strings of Cash" as played by the Hong Kong Theater of Silence (TOS) at San Francisco's ODC Theater last weekend. This small, but spirited company of deaf performers proves once more that hard work and authenticity are necessary elements for a successful production.

Though they call themselves actors, for me, the performers of TOS are dancers, for they never speak a word and rely almost completely on movement, including Cantonese Sign Language (CSL), and facial expression to communicate with the audience. I can only wish that more dancers had the same ability to convey such a range of emotions and nuances. Last year when the Paris Opera Ballet appeared at the War Memorial Opera House, I was impressed with the performers' mime in "La Bayadere," particularly the clarity and conviction they brought to it. I noted how few major classical ballet companies, aside from the Russian ones, today train dancers in this disappearing art. The odd thing about ballet mime is that although at first you think you don't understand it, as the story goes on and certain gestures are repeated you suddenly begin to make sense of it. After all, language acquisition is a function of repetition. The same process happened with the Theater of Silence and its Cantonese signing. After while on a non-verbal level it began making sense, even if one didn't look at the supertitles in English. In other words, I began to learn their language.

The title, "15 Strings of Cash," refers to Chinese money, coins with holes in the middle that were strung together, and is also a major clue in solving the murder which is the basis for the plot. In a nutshell, the butcher in a small town is found murdered by his neighbor, the 15 strings of cash he had borrowed to reopen his shop is missing and his stepdaughter has vanished. She fled because she believed he had sold her into slavery and through false reasoning the mob pursues her and accuses her and a traveling salesman, who has 15 strings of cash from his boss, and whom she has just met on the road, of murder. They are sentenced to death until the Just Prefect believes their protestations of innocence and sets out to find the real killer.

This production is a wonderful balance of simplicity and style, from the movement, to the music, to the sets and costumes. The movement is an amazing amalgamation of traditional Chinese opera walking and gestures, SF Mime Troupe shtick and Cantonese Sign Language, yet strangely it never feels in conflict with itself, perhaps because there are no wasted or gratuitous moves. The music, played live by composer Vincent Pang and Lee Chi Man, contains both elements of Eastern classical, such as melodies from the original opera, and Western jazz, and is played to fit the scene, like the old-time player piano which accompanied silent movies. It never overwhelms and always gently emphasizes the action.

All this is framed by a beautiful painted screen by Iris Leung and lighting designs that helped define locations by Lau Ming Hang. The costumes are beautiful, colorful and stylish, without falling into the overly ornate imperial style, yet still managing to suggest the outmoded traditions. The actors nimbly play multiple roles. Particularly outstanding are Keith Lee as Lou, the Rat, a low-life gambler and thief, Huen Sze Man as the Girl, Danny Law as the Young Man, Edward Chan as the Good Prefect, and Edwin Chan as the Neighbor. All of them own these roles and they never leave character, every detail is true to type.

Our own hometown artists Joan Holden and Dan Chumley, former principal playwright and former principal director, respectively, of the (in)famous San Francisco Mime Troupe, originally collaborated with the Hong Kong Theater of the Deaf in 2000 to create "15 Strings of Cash." Though neither had worked with deaf actors before, they forged ahead, learning as they went what worked and what did not, editing, re-writing, and putting material back in when the stripped down form began lacking enough impetus or emotion to move the story forward. The Mime Troupe's commedia dell'arte-based style seemed to be well-suited to the actors, as much is communicated by body language and physical comedy.

After the show closed, four of the core members of HKTD left to form their own company, the Theater of Silence. The TOS performed at the Deaf Way II Festival in Washington, DC before their San Francisco appearance. I was fortunate to have a friend who is an American Sign Language interpreter attend the performance with me and was able to "talk" with the cast after the show. They were as delightful and animated offstage as they were on it. They humbly complained that they hadn't had enough time to rehearse to bring the show to the point they would have liked, though I certainly didn't notice, and mentioned that it was hard making new changes because the old patterns were so ingrained. I don't know when this company will be performing again in the U.S., but it is well worth seeing, so be on the lookout for its return.

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