“Becoming Someone Else”: Mr. Shi And His Lover Turns Gender Into A Performance In This Unique Chinese Musical Theatre Experience

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The next studio theatre play of the NAC’s English Theatre 2017-2018 season has arrived in the Azireli Studio, and boy is this one impressive.  With music by Nijo Kong Kie, written by Wong Teng Chi, and directed by Tam Chi Chun, Mr. Shi and His Lover is a truly unique Chinese musical theatre experience.  Based on actual events, this is a borderline operatic piece of musical theatre performed (almost) entirely in Mandarin and is the first non-English language production to be performed as part of an NAC English Theatre season.

If you are planning on seeing this play, I would recommend that you read the program first.  I don’t usually make this recommendation but in this case I think it is really helpful.  Normally I just skim the programs for anything that might be important but what caught my eye this time was a separate program from Macau Experimental Theatre, he company behind this performance, tucked into the NAC program.  This separate program not only described the basic plot of the story and the production details, but provided information pertaining to the events this story is based on, as well as detailing the important recurring motifs in this play.  It was helpful to read all of this before the play started as some of the details of the play were (intentionally?) vague due to the nature of the subject matter, so everything made sense because I had read the story before being thrown into it.

The story itself is pretty wild.  French diplomat Bernard Boursicot had an intimate, 20 year relationship with Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu.  When they were imprisoned in France for passing classified information to the Chinese government, it was revealed that Shi Pei Pu was actually a man.  Bernard Boursicot insisted that for the past 20 years he believed that he had been in a heterosexual relationship with a woman and that Shi Pei Pu had fooled him.  It’s a crazy story that really lends itself well to the kind of performance I attended this weekend.

Rather than present audiences with a clear-cut and linear story line, this play is broken up into disjointed and episodic scenes.  We are not given a full, detailed account of this relationship, but rather samples of moments from the point of view of each of these men. As this play is in Mandarin, subtitles are projected onto the wall behind the actors so that English speaking audience members can understand what is being said/sung.  This is also where scene titles are displayed: “The Butterfly Effect”, “Becoming Someone Else”, “The Way We Were”, “Free Will and the King’s Sceptre”, “Performance and Existence”, “Change and Permanency”, and “And Appointment with Disappointment”.  As you can see from these titles, a great deal of the play focuses on the notion of performance as it pertains to fantasy vs. reality and truth vs. illusion.  The characters and audience members are trying to understand how Boursicot could have been fooled by Mr. Shi (or if he was even fooled at all) and the nature of the love between these two men is brought into question.  I believe than the questions we have at the beginning of the play are never truly answered as elements of the last scene echo moments from the first scene.  The only difference is that by the last scene, both men have been imprisoned for their crimes and appear to be broken by their experiences.

Mr. Shi (Jordan Cheng) and Boursicot (Derek Kwan) are the only two actors in this play and are accompanied by musicians Yukie Lai and Njo Kong Kie.  This play is almost entirely sung except for a few key scenes.  Scene 4, “Free Will and the King’s Scepter”, is entirely spoken and has little to no accompanying music in the background, but the words are so poetic is the way they are written and spoken that they might as well be music.  Scene 6, “Change and Permanency”, is also unique as Boursicot speaks to the audience quickly, through a microphone with a heavy echo, and in 3 languages. The scene is fast and confusing and brings our attention to the issues of translating and making sense of the story as the actor makes it obvious that an Asian man is playing a French man.  And, when the word “homosexual” is spoken, the word “heterosexual” is presented on screen – and vice versa.  Just as Mr. Shi’s gender is apparently lost in translation, so are the words and ideas that are most important in the story.

Jordan Cheng as Mr. Shi is absolutely phenomenal.  He spends almost the entire play in a suit, but there is no doubt that he is the woman in this relationship.  His performance of “female” is brilliantly done.  In some scenes, this femininity is subtle and understated, but in others Mr. Shi is aware of the performance and amplifies it to the point where the performed femininity is over the top and exaggerated.  His performance of gender blurs the lines between “male” and “female” and creates a kind of plausibility where we are led to think that it may not have been all that hard to fool Boursicot.  Jordan Cheng’s performance was, in my opinion, the highlight of the show.

The rest of the show was rather simplistic but I think that this was for the best.  The operatic singing was so powerful, beautiful, and moving that it was nice not to be distracted from that.  The lighting was simple and there was essentially no set, just a rug, a couple of chairs, and a display of Mr. Shi’s “female” outfit.  The main focal points on the stage were the screen with subtitles – which, thankfully, did not distract from the performance – and the instruments.  The piano, marimba, and various forms of Chinese percussion were used to accompany this piece; it was never overpowering but, admittedly, at times I found the music to be a little too simplistic.  Still, it allowed the singing to shine as the language and the story were the important parts of this play.

This was definitely a unique theatrical experience for the National Arts Centre, and I was pleased to see that something so different had been brought to this English Theatre season.  This is a play that is not only entertaining, but invites audiences to question the events of this story and I think that that makes for a truly well-rounded theatrical experience.  This has been a great way to start off the new year and continue this theatre season and I am really looking forward to seeing what the next shows have to offer.

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