by Timothy Robson
Friday evening’s production by the Contemporary Legend Theatre of Taiwan of King Lear, based on Shakespeare’s play, will be considered one of the highlights of this season. Shakespeare’s tragedy of falsehood, humiliation, madness and redemption through love was adapted, directed and performed by Wu Hsing-kuo, artistic director of Contemporary Legend Theatre. Mr. Wu has performed in theater, movies and television. American opera goers saw him in 2006 in the role of Yin-Yang Master in Tan Dun’s The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera. The performance was accompanied by an orchestra of nine musicians on traditional Chinese classical instruments, which were amplified. The performance also included pre-recorded sounds that were mixed into the live music. Wu Hsing-kuo was not himself amplified. The music composer was Lee Yi-Chin, and the vocal composer was Lee Men.
The performance, part of the Cleveland Museum of Art VIVA! & Gala series, was originally scheduled for the Gartner Auditorium at the museum, but was moved to the Breen Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland’s Ohio City area. And for good reason: the production has extensive lighting and theatrical effects which would have been impossible in the museum auditorium.
This version of King Lear blends elements of traditional Chinese opera, fusing singing, acting, recitation, ritualistic movement, dance, acrobatics and martial arts into a deconstruction and reassembling of themes from Shakespeare’s play. The three acts of Mr. Wu’s creation are not a strict retelling of the story. The narrative is reversed, beginning in Act One at the end of the story, with Mr. Wu portraying the mad King Lear wandering the battlefield shouting in the storm.
Mr. Wu’s tour de force performance was seamless in its use of the various modes of expression, both vocal and movement. The mad king turned somersaults and adopted his discarded shoe as his pet. There were very striking tableaux created on the stage, beginning during the orchestral prelude with a trio of spotlights focused on a stage billowing with fog. Lear wore an elaborate robe, with a clearly artificial wig and long white beard, the preening of which became a part of the action. He sang a haunting unaccompanied song about a spring flower, referring to his daughter Cordelia, whom he had come to realize that he unjustly banished from his kingdom. As in all operatic libretti based upon Shakespeare, Mr. Wu has selected the important bits that pointedly illustrate the character of Lear. There were subtitles in Chinese and English displayed on large video monitors on either side of the stage.
Only the second act approaches a dramatic narrative that would be described as traditional; even there, the action is character sketches outlining the characters of the Fool, Dog, Lear, the three daughters (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia), the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, the illegitimate but ambitious Edmund and his older, but dull brother Edgar. Mr. Wu took all of these roles, clearly defined by imaginative small alterations of his costume, but inhabiting the personality of each character so as to be easily recognizable, even for those of us who don’t speak Chinese.
The yappy dog made fun of his human companions, and spoke English. Goneril and Regan were full of false flattery for the love of their father; Cordelia spoke honestly of her love for her father “according to the bond, no more, no less.” Her banishment was accompanied percussively by drums and clashing cymbals. At the end of the act, to overpowering sounds of winds and waves, the blinded Gloucester jumped to his death from the cliff in Dover. The powerful and sensual image was heartbreaking.
In the third act Wu Hsing-kuo appeared as himself and summoned the character of Lear, commenting on the folly of human existence. Dressed in a simple tunic, Mr. Wu carried the elaborate Lear costume in a bundle and placed it ritualistically on the stage before singing an extended “aria” lamenting the foolishness of King Lear. In a final coup de théâtre, Mr. Wu spoke of the loss of the past, and as the lights dimmed, he was raised on wires the full height of the stage and vanished in blackness.
The performance received an ovation from the capacity audience. The brilliant young orchestra musicians took several group curtain calls with ritualistic solemnity. Before he acknowledged the audience, Mr. Wu bowed to his supporting musicians. It was an intellectually challenging and memorable night at the theater.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com January 28, 2013
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