The aim of the Los Angeles Festival, as frequently stated by its producers, is
to expand the horizons of local audiences through new and mysterious artistic
experiences. That being so, Saturday night’s visit to the Japan-America
Theater by the Kun Opera of China must be reckoned a success. It was a most
mysterious evening.
There is only one valid way, actually, for an audience unaccustomed to this
kind of exotic musical/dramatic art (or any kind for that matter) to deal with
its challenge: to approach it as a child might approach an unfamiliar toy, to
examine it first for its outward glitter and ponder its meaning later on. The
Kun — artistic descendants of a centuries-old Chinese company which was, for
a time, scattered during the so-called “Cultural Revolution” but now
reassembled — was a joy to watch and to hear, even if merely for the
acrobatic skill of its performers and the jangly charm of its music (a few
raucous small gongs, a couple of wind instruments and a small harp).
Yet the mystery was needlessly compounded on this occasion; there were no
programs, and the three works performed — all of them excerpts from longer
classic works — were only scantily described by an announcer at the start of
each. Most of the vocalism was in the form of artifically inflected speech,
with now and then a sweet, small song accompanied by instruments in unison.
Never was the case for supertitles more eloquently stated.
Except for a musicians’ area on the side marked off in red fabric, the stage
was bare; surely this cannot be a Chinese operatic tradition, considering the
brilliant fantasy of the costumes — including a pair of marvelous, elongated
plumes on a headdress in the first piece that seemed to execute their own
graceful choreography.
This report, then, is of what seemed to happen and probably did. In the first
piece a Monkey King (played by Chen Tongshen) tries to capture the magic fan
belonging to a Princess (Shi Jehua), and succeeds only when he changes himself
into a fly which the Princess then accidentally swallows. In the second, a
monk (Zhong Weide) tries to escape the monastic life, comes down the mountain,
battles a wine merchant (Kai Qinling) and imbibes his wares, does a drunken
dance and then returns up the mountain. In the third, a girl (the lovely Hua
Wen-yi) repressed by her parents falls asleep in a peony patch, dreams of a
love affair, but then wakes to reality.
All of this was acted out, sung and played in a style of movement full of
symbols honed over centuries. Beautiful, and sometimes extremely funny, as it
all was to watch, a little elucidation out front would have deepened the
experience. Still, anyone from any culture had to react to the extraordinarily
lithe acrobatics of Chen Tongshen’s Monkey King, and the hilarious
“bellyache-dance” of his Princess when she has swallowed that fly. And that
Monk’s drunken dance in the second piece did seem to speak for all imbibers
anywhere in the world: a universal language if ever one was.

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