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.

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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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SummerWorks: Caught in a web of deceit & love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi & His Lover

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I caught the closing performance of Mr. Shi and His Lover, a Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic contemporary Chinese music theatre co-production, a special SummerWorks presentation at the Theatre Centre Mainspace. Inspired by the real-life love affair between a Chinese opera singer turned spy and a French diplomat, the show is performed in Mandarin with Chinese and English surtitles, with text by Wong Teng Chi, surtitle translation by Derek Kwan, music/music direction by Njo Kong Kie and direction by Johnny Tam.

A love affair between opera singer Mr. Shi (Jordan Cheng) and French diplomat Bernard (Derek Kwan) ends in scandal and imprisonment when it’s discovered that Shi is a spy – and a man disguised as a woman.

Lovely, nuanced and moving work from Cheng and Kwan – in moments of revealing solitude and in powerful, evocative two-handers. With a masterful combination of movement, gesture and voice, Cheng brings a beautiful balance of delicacy and strength to his performance as Shi; although Shi lives for, and revels in, a life of performance, he’s not prepared for getting caught in his own lie. Kwan gives Bernard a great sense of tension; his corporate sense of propriety and manners belie the deep love of ideal beauty and the heart of a romantic. As rational and logical as Bernard strives to be, he cannot explain love away when his ideal woman turns out to be a man. Mining the layers of public and private persona, betrayal, revelation, and attempted forgiveness and redemption, both must admit to real love. And in the end, each man ultimately becomes his own judge and jury.

Njo Kong Kie (piano) and Carol Wang (percussion) create a two-person orchestra for the production; positioned upstage on opposite sides, scoring and underscoring the story of Shi and Bernard’s life together and apart. The music and lyrics draw inspiration from Peking opera, pop music and modern-day music theatre; revealing the inner workings of these characters and heightening the poignant tragedy of their relationship.

Identity, perception, intrigue, scandal – and most potent of all – love; this story has it all. A performer and a diplomat caught in a web of deceit and love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi and His Lover.

Mr. Shi and His Lover closed its SummerWorks run at the Theatre Centre Mainspace yesterday afternoon. Keep an eye out for future productions on the show’s website.