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1-24: Monkeying Around
Monkeying Around Peking-style at Town Hall
By Albert Lee
Copyright 2000 Albert Lee
ghosts, a sword-wielding princess, and (as PBI put it), the "obligatory
monkey king" were all on hand for an evening of the Beijing Kunju
Opera Theatre, whose Saturday performance at Town Hall was sponsored
by the World Music Institute.
a tradition distinct from Peking opera (although this uneducated
viewer could not discern the difference), is an engaging blend of
highly stylized gesticulation, acrobatics, pantomime, and melodic,
throaty vocalization. Western opera -- and the Broadway musical,
too, for that matter--also combines drama and music with an overwrought
emotionality, but its Chinese counterpart is rooted in a more courtly,
archaic tradition. Movement is metaphor, stories are based on folk
tales, and ritual has an invisible presence on stage. (Defying tradition,
the company employs women, not men, in the female roles.)
troupe presented an astutely balanced program of excerpted dramatic
and acrobatic scenes. (Evidently, a wise move: a Chinese friend
rolled his eyes and groaned when I told him how I planned to spend
the evening.) The stories are remarkably familiar, like "The Crossroads,"
a case of mistaken identity with hilarious consequences, and "Walking
in the Garden" (an excerpt from "The Peony Pavilion," a classic
of the genre), in which a young woman dreams of true love.
of the humor, too, is noteworthy--every joke seems to comprise a
clown and a straight man.
the Fan," the Monkey King (an actor in yellow jumpers, with blinking
eyes and bloated cheeks) plots to steal a magic, leap-shaped fan
from the Iron Princess. She thwarts him with a sword in each hand,
her attendants tumble onto stage to help her, and they twirl and
do battle. Swords fly, sticks twirl, and the acrobats juggle, toss
and spin with striking precision. "Zhong Kui Marries Off His Sister"
offered equally acrobatic "ghosts" (they looked more like clowns)
and the poignant story of a scholar who, cursed with ugly looks,
decides to kill himself but then returns in ghostly form to betroth
his sister to another man.
were an art in themselves, lavish and gorgeous to look at--sheer
visual pleasure. But it was the actors' theatricality and remarkable
acrobatic skill that elicited frequent ovations from the audience.
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