The battle for survival & inclusion in an elite Chinese sanctuary in the provocative, darkly funny Yellow Rabbit

En Lai Mah & April Leung, with Amanda Zhou in the background. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

 

Soulpepper presents the world premiere of Silk Bath Collective’s (SBC) provocative, darkly funny, multimedia and trilingual Yellow Rabbit, written by Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan and Gloria Mok, directed by Jasmine Chen and running at the Young Centre. Set in a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopia, with dialogue in English, Cantonese and Mandarin (with surtitles), contestants are tested and assessed in a life or death competition to gain entry into the Chinese sanctuary Rich-Man Hill. A beautiful oasis from a harsh and dangerous land, competition is fierce and standards are strict—and only those who are deemed worthy are allowed access.

Yellow Rabbit represents the evolution of SBC’s sold-out production of Silk Bath, which debuted at Toronto Fringe and went on to the Next Stage Festival—making history as the first trilingual play at the Fringe. While Silk Bath focused on external stereotyping and oppression of Chinese-Canadians, Yellow Rabbit dives deep into internalized racism and extremism. You have to be the ‘right’ kind of Chinese to get into Rich-Man Hill.

Woman (April Leung) and Man (En Lai Mah) are brought into the testing facility, paired as husband and wife by Rich-Man Hill authorities, as they’ve been identified as a good match to carry on the Chinese race in this post-apocalyptic world. Overseen by Mother (Amanda Zhou), assisted by Child (Bessie Cheng), Woman and Man must pass a series of tests and challenges designed to prove their excellence—and ultimate worth—as ideal Chinese citizens; and the assessment process is a life and death prospect.

Hounded and hunted in the outside world, Chinese survivors are willing to risk anything to get into Rich-Man Hill. Contestants are fitted with collars, which Mother and Child use to manipulate and discipline with painful shocks. In between challenges, contestants view propaganda videos (by Zeesy Powers) showing Mother and Child enjoying a loving, trusting relationship in a breath-taking, verdant landscape highlighted by a refreshing waterfall. The Woman and Man both have secrets they’re keeping from Mother, but share with each other in an attempt to connect and work together to get through the trials. Meanwhile, Mother and Child find they don’t agree on the standards Mother has set; the more narrow-minded, old-school Mother is much more stringent on who is deemed worthy, while Child is more progressive and desires more modern, forward-thinking parameters.

Yellow Rabbit-6
Amanda Zhou & Bessie Cheng. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

Great work from the ensemble, balancing the dark humour with the disturbing nature of the situation. Leung and Mah have great chemistry as Woman and Man; both are strong-willed and determined, but realize that they must try to get along and work together, as all the tests are applied to them as a pair. Both deeply troubled and conflicted, the secrets that Man and Woman harbour speak to the core of their identity; and it’s heart-breaking to watch them try to be something they’re not in order to pass the tests and survive. Zhou gives Mother an ethereal air of mystery—a combination spiritual and community leader spouting wisdom and guidance; but beneath Mother’s nurturing exterior is a harsh and unforgiving authoritarian. Cheng’s Child is an innocent, devoted follower and assistant to Mother; but even Child’s loyalty goes only so far—and, despite her more modern-day views, her model is still based on the totalitarian regime already running Rich-Man Hill.

Extreme standards and isolation breed fear and contempt for outsiders and those not deemed the ‘right’ type of Chinese. And with such strict rules for entry and fewer potential contestants at her disposal, Mother risks weakening the community she’s supposed to be protecting.

Yellow Rabbit continues for its final week at the Young Centre, closing on December 1. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance tickets are a must; if a performance appears to be sold out online, check again—as some tickets may be released close to or on the day of.

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Interview: Director Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra will present the fourth installment of its Haus Musik series on April 26 at the Great Hall, directed by Amanda Smith. Topping Ludwig van Toronto’s 2017 list of breakthrough women in the local classical music scene, Smith is known for her multidisciplinary collaborations with actors, singers, DJs, instrumentalists, visual artists and filmmakers—creating dramatic and remarkable classical music performances that translate the music into the physical world. Smith recently directed Belladonna – a queer techno opera, produced by her company Fawn Chamber Creative.

This upcoming performance of Haus Musik takes us to a post-apocalyptic world, with Tafelmusik performing live in a bunker, where survivor Alex (Ally Smither) has taken shelter. Alex’s only connection to the outside world—and her only source of hope—is the radio and music.

I interviewed Smith, asking her about this upcoming iteration of Haus Musik, as well as her drive to create multidisciplinary classical music experiences.

With this fourth installment of Tafelmusik’s Haus Musik series, you’re exploring political extremes and isolation—timely themes in these turbulent times. In a world on the brink of apocalypse, radio becomes a life line and music a source of comfort. What can you tell us about the genesis of this project?

Truth be told, I thought of it while lying on my bed and listening to CBC Radio. They were talking about tensions between the United States and North Korea, so my thoughts naturally jumped to the worst case scenario. Mostly, I was wondering how it would be possible to maintain mental resiliency in addition to physical safety—they go hand-in-hand, but we so often forget about our psychological needs. I remembered that UK radio stations have a thing called the ‘obit procedure’, which calls for specifically chosen music to be played in the event of a national disaster. This got me thinking about the role of the radio as a primary source of public information during a disaster, and thought about how interesting it is that music is a decided method of keeping the public united and calm. I thought that the music selected for the upcoming Haus Musik had the kind of uplifting, hopeful sound that would be helpful in keeping people going during a moment of darkness.

You’re collaborating with synth artist ACOTE, and including the works of 18th century classical composers (Mozart, Vanhal and Boccherini), as well as James Rolfe’s Oboe Quartet. How did these musical flavours come together for you for this project?

The classical music in the program was selected by the Tafelmusik team. With this program, I’ve created a narrative arc that will be interpreted and driven forward by ACOTE’s electronic music. I have worked with ACOTE fairly regularly over the past couple years and love his musical sensitivity when collaborating with classical music. He manages to always find a cohesion between the different styles of music that also puts us in the dramatic world I’m looking to create.

In addition to including various takes on classical repertoire, you also incorporate acting and dance into your work. What drew you to creating these multidisciplinary pieces?

My relationship with music has always been very visual. This was apparent while studying music in my undergrad, when I began to seek out platforms that allowed me to physicalize music in different ways. This just seems to be the way I connect with music. I like to work with artists from different industries, such as dance, visual art, experimental electronic music, film, etc., because they bring new perspectives and wonderful ideas. I think it’s a lot harder to grow if you remain exclusive to one way of thinking.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience of this performance of Haus Musik?

Simply, I would love for audiences to leave with the message that art serves an important role in our society. Not only is it a source of personal and cultural expression, but it’s often used to keep people united, especially music. When there seems so much wrong in the world, it’s easy for artists and the public to doubt the value of creative work—I think about this quite often. It’s good to remember that sometimes singing a song with your community is what keeps people fighting and pushing forward.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word? I don’t have a favourite but the first word that came to mind was cuddle.

What’s your least favourite word? Slut—such poison to hear and say.

What turns you on? Good dancing.

What turns you off? Narcissism.

What sound or noise do you love? My cats purring.

What sound or noise do you hate? Open mouth chewing sounds.

What is your favourite curse word? Fuck.

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue? Literally, nothing.

What profession would you not like to do? Performer.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Your family and friend are here.”

Before we go, anything you’d like to add or shout out?

Only that I’m looking forward to the show on April 26th. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience.

 

Haus Musik runs for one night only: April 26 in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall; doors at 8 pm. Get advance tickets online.