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Flash Review, 1-24: Monkeying Around
Monkeying Around Peking-style at Town Hall

By Albert Lee
Copyright 2000 Albert Lee

Colorful, tumbling 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.

Kunju opera, 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.)

The Beijing 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.

The physicality of the humor, too, is noteworthy--every joke seems to comprise a clown and a straight man.

In "Borrowing 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.

The costumes 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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