A Chinese Tragedy in Subtitles

At first glance, Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America's newest experimental production Behind The Mask seems as unapproachable and daunting as the foreign-language category of the Oscars. The entire play is spoken, performed and occasionally sung in that beautifully intimidating language, Mandarin Chinese. One might view it appreciatively from afar, mildly aware that time and effort has been put into presenting a culturally distinctive performance for a largely English-speaking audience. Film has progressed (in more ways than one) beyond that of its centuries-old grudging cousin, the theater. As with Ida, the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, or as with any of the acclaimed films of Akira Kurosawa's pastoral Japan, Francois Truffaut's urban France, or Abbas Kiarostami's childlike Iran, one would expect theater to follow in film's foreign language experiment. But, as Behind The Mask shows us, the medium of theater performance does not always sit well with subtitles. 

Director Chongren Fan gambles with a single, slippery aspect of his audience's attention: that the subtitles running on a screen next to the performers will not distract from the performers themselves. Understandably, most of the audience is of Chinese descent, and the flashing white words do not faze them, but many (including this writer) possess an embarrassingly rudimentary understanding of Mandarin Chinese, and must prepare themselves for a veritable tennis match of reading the dialogue and actually watching the show. During one monologue, an actor mentions "the magic of attention" that first drew her into the world of theater. But the medium she professes to worship struggles to hold onto that magic, at least for English speakers watching an aurally enchanting, yet unhappily remote, Chinese-language performance.

But beyond such technical (and bodily) hardships, everyone in the audience—English or Chinese-speaking—understands that they are watching a play about a rehearsal for a play. A struggling theater troupe somewhere in China is putting on their production of an ancient myth about a tyrannical king who kills his master swordsmiths when he realizes that their blood is required to forge the world's sharpest blades. Sixteen years after the twin deaths, the swordsmiths' son Mei Jian Chi seeks his revenge against the bloodthirsty king, and (with a considerable recalculation of what it means to live and die) offers his decapitated "living head" as part of a deal to kill the ruler. In sporadic, poignant interruptions, the actors rehearsing the play break off into individual monologues, describing their lives as artists in a largely discouraging contemporary environment. 

Fan toys with several peculiar themes in Behind The Mask, but perhaps one is more ubiquitous than we think: life after death. Dead characters regularly walk and talk to living ones; death is signified by the removal of a brightly colored mask covering the actors' faces, and the mask itself becomes a "living head." Behind The Mask's ghosts, both real and cerebral, are as present as the living. Old vendettas and dead generational vengeances thrive in the hearts of the young, as do ancient values. In this respect, there is an organic, moving parallel to be drawn between Mei Jian Chi's quest to find his courage and each individual actor's risky decision to become a performer. Writers Fend BaiMing and Huang WeiRuo have mastered the stumbling, yet stirring, speeches of the sons and daughters of austere Asian parents. There is a controlled rebellion and rapt wonderment in their words as the actors of the theater troupe defend their creative decisions and their all-consuming love for the theater.

It is not difficult to picture any one of this play's actual performers delivering similar addresses to their own parents at some point in their lives. Behind their exuberant dialogue plays a rousing soundtrack, emotive and airy during the monologues, and warlike and drum-heavy during the mythologizing. It's no wonder that the music regulates the pulse of the play; composer Xiren Wang is a self-described "aural magician." More striking to the eye is the red-and-yellow-colored set, with flashy posters of Bruce Lee and eyeless Kabuki masks gazing out at the audience. A giant tragedy mask occupies center stage; it seems to portend an inevitable resolution to the play's tensions between life and death. So although the English speaker, that ever-adaptable breed of audience, finds a vexing inability to fully appreciate Fan's enchanting take on Behind The Mask, strong communal performances and a good deal of affable philosophy serve up a delicious, if neck-cracking, feast for their eyes and ears. 

Presented by the Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America, Behind the Mask—a Play by Chinese authors Feng BaiMing and Huang WeiRuo, ran at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave. between 9th and 10th Sts. in Manhattan) through July 12.  For more information, visit www.yangtze-rep-theatre.org.

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