Veterans of the Shanghai Kunju Company--broken up by defections last summer after the Tian An Men massacre--have been reunited in Southern California and, reconstituted, made their debut Saturday and Sunday at the Japan America Theatre. Though presented by the Los Angeles Festival, they did so without any of the corporate-sponsored glitz that had surrounded the "Legend of the Water Flame" just the week before, or even the benefit of a printed program, on opening night at least.
The crux of the genre seems to be intense characterization and emotional distillation within a highly stylized context. Each character has an identifiable body language, costuming, makeup and voice type, and the challenge is to make the archetype live.
The classical apex of the program was "Strolling in the Garden, Stirred by the Dream," an excerpt from "The Peony Pavilion" featuring Hua Wenyi, former artistic director of the Shanghai company. She embodied a young, sheltered woman so wholly that her emotional awakening--pristinely prefigured by removing layers of beautifully embroidered costume--was paradoxically as real as it was also obviously a dream.
She floated in elegantly turning parallel movements that defined her relationships with her maid (Shi Jiehua) and phantom lover (Yin Jifang, in the equivalent of a trousers-role). She sang the haunting, formulaic music with an accomplished ease that put a world of meaning in her heterophonic divergences from the accompanying orchestra, consisting principally of the ti-tzu (transverse flute), sheng (mouth organ) or pi-pa (lute), and erh-hu (fiddle).
Percussion raucously dominated the comic scenes "The Monkey King Borrows the Fan" and "Dead Drunk, Lu Zhisheng Practices Martial Arts," both essentially character duets. Chen Tongshen made an athletically exuberant, winsomely persistent Monkey King as opposed with imperious spirit by Shi Jiehua, while Zhong Weide as the blustering, drunken monk met his comic match in Cai Qinglin's wine seller, who gave his parting shot of "see you tomorrow" in English.