by Wong Teng Chi
English translation by Derek Kwan
Directed by Tam Chi Chun
At Tarragon Theatre, November 15-December 17, 2017

(L-R) Jordan Cheng (Shi) and Derek Kwan (Boursicot) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Restraint is one of the virtues in this interesting 75-minute piece of musical theatre from a Macau production group, but it is also a limitation. When Derek Kwan’s Boursicot (French diplomat in Beijing) stands slightly behind Jordan Cheng’s elegant Shi Pei Pu (cross-dressing opera singer and spy), the audience can almost feel his pent-up ardour for his Chinese lover.  In a subsequent scene, it is Shi’s turn (while wearing a Chinese opera diva’s long-sleeved robe) to stand behind Boursicot, this time with his hands holding his lover to his own body in a gesture of desire, bonding, and conflict-ridden interdependency. There is no raw, raging sex scene—only the nerve ends of carnality. Their story (first presented in Toronto for Summerworks) is not that of David Henry Wang’s Broadway smash from 1992, M. Butterfly, though it takes inspiration from the predecessor, just as it alludes to Puccini’s classic Madam Butterfly without faithfully recirculating its oriental stereotype. In Puccini, Cho-cho san is a geisha, a quintessential Western paragon of Japanese women, and her suicide (after her betrayal by the American Pinkerton) is of a form conventionally associated with Japan. In Hwang’s play, the central figure is male, representing a rejection of the stereotypical Asian woman, but Gallimard, the French diplomat, who falls in love with Song Liling (the transvestite Butterfly), represents the Westerner’s desperate belief in the Oriental stereotype. Mr. Shi and His Lover elects to tells its real-life story in “an imagined space” that is a sort of prison to Shi who feels desperately alone while searching for a new ending for his ruffled, suffering lover but especially for himself. Boursicot has given up everything for him but has not found true happiness, though he claims to know what happiness is. Perhaps it is because he subscribes to Oriental stereotypes of the feminine beloved as Lotus Blossom or Oriental Beauty. Certainly, Jordan Cheng’s slender, graceful, androgynous Shi is as delicate as a flower blossom and as beautiful, and he knows how to maintain a fiction about ideal femininity. But he has an inquiring mind, and Wong Teng Chi’s fable unfolds like a love-drenched reverie in Shi’s mind and in which Boursicot is compelled to wonder if he has fallen in love first with a man and then with an impersonated woman.

There are many other tangential themes—lies, politics, history, ideal and fantasy—but they are all assimilated by notions of performance. Everything is seen in terms of performance, whether it is Shi’s ritual of making up, crossdressing, singing, or delivering monologues and dialogue. The mandarin dialogue is given English sur-titles, but sometimes the text is top-heavy with abstract concepts that seem to clash with the predominately sensuous score—a fusion of lush Chinese and Western operatic arias and Chinese folk music (sensitively rendered by Njo at the piano and Yukie Lai on percussion). The score could stand on its own, and there are plans to record and release it on a CD, with, I suggest, a booklet containing the lyrics in English. Yet I don’t want to suggest that the score steals attention from the story. It is beautiful, artful, moving, yet wonderfully controlled.

The restraint extends to the scenic, costume, and lighting design as well. The set is simply a dressing stand with mirror and opera costume and a small red rectangular carpet is flanked upstage by the two musicians. Shi and his lover wear Western suits, emblematic of cosmopolitan colonization, and the lighting is never obtrusive. The actors perform without resorting to any operatic flourishes, though the volume and modulations of Shi’s spoken text and sung lyrics give Jordan Cheng more beguiling colour and range than Derek Kwan enjoys as his perplexed, frustrated lover. Being specially trained in music, Cheng handles his solos with stunning virtuosity, sliding from high, plaintive or playful falsetto to sharp seductiveness or angry defiance. But the solo arias and spoken monologues are not enough to enhance theatricality, and the question-riddled dialogue adds an unnecessary burden to the acting. Consequently, the characters don’t come fully to life often enough, with the piece remaining more a mental drama than a fully fleshed play. I wanted more eroticism, and I wanted to know how Boursicot must have truly felt about either being duped by Shi or willingly maintaining a fiction about love and identity.

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