By Brace Cove
Each spring NYU Skirball curates “powerful performances from around the globe” as part of its Visions + Voices Global Peformance Series, which creates a unique opportunity to closely examine and celebrate a singular world culture. This season, Vision + Voices turned to China and The Broadway Blog sent writer Brace Cove to check out a production of Richard III.
“A fascinating bore. A dull spectacular.”
The Shakespearean convention of the oxymoron fits this production like a glove. There was so much about the National Theater of China’s production of Richard III to grab the eye—so much to pique interest. Sadly, once piqued, there’ wasn’t much to the production to hold that attention.
Richard III is the tale of the charming, charismatic, handicapped and homicidal Richard Duke of Gloucester’s, rise to power. Set at the penultimate peace of the War of the Roses, the story follows Richard’s lethal ambitious quest to grab the crown of England for himself as the blood of family and friends spills in his wake.
Richard tells us at the plays opening he laments the new peace. Peace is a time for lovers. Since he is not “shaped for sportive tricks” as capering “nimbly in a lady’s chamber” to “lascivious” tunes, he will set his sites on gaining England’s crown for himself.
The Chinese National Theater’s production borrows from the story of another Shakespearean homicidal would-be king. Richard meets three witches who prophesy his rise to power. He takes his cue from them. They return again to prophesy his downfall as well.
The production boasts lots of visual stimulation and theatricality. There are gilded robes, glittering crowns, pouring blood, acrobats, and an amazing hat that reminded me of antelope horns, made of the longest feathers I have ever seen. An aesthetic of stylized movement creates beautiful pictures and tableau. I found myself wanting to learn more about and see some purely traditional Chinese theater rather than this hybrid.
Zhang Dognyu as the title character is an energetic, engaging and charismatic Richard, with incredible stage presence, though his performance was only occasionally handicapped, which I found a bit distracting—sometimes he was hunchbacked with a withered arm, other times not.
Conceptually and technically, the production suffers. The characters are all portrayed as archetypes. What’s wrong with that? Well, Shakespeare’s characters often speak for a long time. We watch them deliberate, rationalize and finally come to a conclusion. Through the process of deliberation, the subtlety and nuance of humanity is revealed. The light shines on different aspects of each character as they struggle, as they grapple with challenges that mark the road to success or failure in their individual paths.
Since each character was portrayed is such broad strokes, that subtlety and nuance of deliberation didn’t shine through. For the most part everyone came across as one note, one-dimensional. The words became subservient to the style. The production also suffered numerous technical problems, particularly the supertitles that were decidedly unsuper. They were often syntactically and grammatically challenging and rarely were in synch with scene that was taking place on stage. At one point, supertitles even spun across the screen in rapid succession like a Rolodex.
At times provocative, entertaining, theatrical, engaging and certainly culturally significant, this Richard III was ultimately however, not greater than the sum of its parts.
Vision + Voices continues through May 12 with the following performances:
Film: The Piano in a Factory
When Chen’s estranged wife (QIN HAI-LU) reappears asking for a divorce and custody of their daughter, the young musician decides she will live with whoever can provide her a piano. When efforts to borrow money and even steal a piano fail, Chen (WANG QIAN-YUAN) concocts a preposterous plan – to make a piano from scratch! He persuades a bunch of reluctant but loyal misfit friends to help him forge the instrument in a derelict factory from a heap of scrap steel.
Film/Music: Tan Dun’s The Map
The NYU Symphony Orchestra will perform Tan Dun’s masterpiece, The Map in a one-night only concert performance with special guests – Grammy-nominated conductor Andrew Cyr and leading classical cellist Wendy Sutter. The field video recordings used in The Map capture passionate antiphonal singing, intriguing tongue singing, emphatic percussive dance and other images of ethnic musical life. The interaction of audio-video and live music connected generations and cultures across years and over continents. The evening will also feature Tan Dun’s Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa featuring pipa virtuoso Zhou Yi.