Social Ties

The Other Shore, Yale Cabaret’s most recent production, was written by Chinese Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, and presented a fascinating example of East meets West.  Gao, influenced by European dramatists associated with “theater of the absurd” (he translated Beckett, for instance), creates in this play a nowhere space that could be anywhere, but there are also elements, as presented under the direction of YSD’s Cheng-Han Wu, that seemed to have a strong folk element, as well as a sense of contemporary Cab improv. The production opened with the five cast members (Brian Chen, Walter B. Chon, Babak Gharaeti-Tafti, Marcus Henderson, Jillian Taylor) roaming about the space, speaking at times to each other, at times to members of the audience, crouching, searching, laughing, arguing.  From the start it seemed clear the five individuals were in fluid roles relative to one another, a telling representation of how social purposes often define who or what we are.

The play consists of quick vignettes, short snatches of stylized encounter that present a variety of possible social occasions and interactions, some very comical—such as a teacher’s instruction to infants about the parts of the body—others, such as a rape/murder and a sort of mock trial, playing on a certain threat of violence or of madness that ran as a strong undercurrent throughout the play.  Aaron P. Mastin’s costume design helped in that regard: the loose, somewhat generically “Asian” outfits made the cast resemble either adepts of a certain form of training or inmates in an asylum, or both.

In a play so quickly changing in tone and situation, one can only offer impressionistic comments: certainly a particularly strong scene was early in the play when the cast grabbed strands of a tangled rope which they eventually strung across the space—using audience members as supports—to resemble a giant spider web, a symbol of the kinds of connections the play investigates, but then treated the web as if an obstacle to bypass as each tried, moving through imaginary water, to reach “the other shore.”  At that point, one was watching under two possible views: either they all drowned and “the other shore” they reached was spiritual—in which case, the instructions about the body were a way of suggesting rebirth—or they actually reached a physical other shore where such lessons were a form of indoctrination (it was interesting how quickly the harmless naming of body parts evolved into constructions of self: “me: you” “us: them” and to statements aimed at self and other—“you hate me,” “I will kill you”).

And that’s pretty much how the evening went: we were always on a shifting ground, where group mind could, at one moment, sound like the voice of the law against an innocent man accused of a crime, at another, like a community ostracizing the one who thinks differently or has no need for the communal rituals.  In both cases Gharaeti-Tafti, as the one persecuted, and Henderson, as the one generally persecuting, stood out from the others, indeed Henderson, in his mercurial shifts, seemed to embody a sort of trickster figure, appearing at times as an old woman, as Gharaeti-Tafti’s mother, as killer, as judge and jury.

Special mention should be made of the contribution of Junghoon Pi, as composer, musician, sound designer: the slightest word or sound in the space was made to echo, certain moments were attended by very precise and arresting sounds, at other times—an on-your-feet-and-dance moment, for instance—he enveloped us in music that created specific aural contexts.

Ritual, in its many meanings—from chanting to courtship to fighting to all sorts of tasks—played through the entire piece, making a case each time about how our learned behaviors define us, unless, perhaps, we look at them from the other shore.

The Other Shore, written by Gao Xingjian; translated by Gilbert C. Fong; adapted and directed by Cheng-Han Wu

The Yale Cabaret, November 11-13, 2010

Next up at the Cab: the final production of the semester: Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, a one-person play originally written for and first presented at the Yale Summer Cabaret in August 1999, with Glen Berger in the role of “the Librarian.”  This time, Max Moore will undertake the role, directed by Blake Segal. 203.432.1566.