‘Behind The Mask- a Play’ Explores Secret Life of Chinese Theater Troupe

An ancient myth about blood and honor reveals the secret life of a Chinese theater troupe in the dark comedy “Behind the Mask – a Play” by Chinese authors Feng BaiMing and Huang WeiRuo, which is being newly adapted by Yangtze Repertory Theatre in a production helmed by Chinese-born director Chongren Fan. The play will be performed in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles and will be completely accessible for English-speaking audiences. English translation is by Kristen Hung. This U.S. premiere will be presented by Yangtze Rep June 25 to July 12, 2015 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, East Village.

A play-within-a-play takes place in a theater space somewhere in China, where a nine-person troupe is rehearsing for a story about a Chinese mythical hero, Mei Jian Chi. As the myth is popularly known within Chinese culture, it depicts a tyrant, the King of Chu, who orders the death of his two master swordsmiths as part of a ritualized process to forge the world’s sharpest blades, using human blood. Their son, Mei, seeking revenge, devises a death ploy with an errant by offering his own living but decapitated head to the King. Fragments of the mythical story switch in and out from snippets of mundane and personal follies of the struggling troupe during rehearsal. Through the play, we get to learn about the troupe and the pressures of the artistic life in contemporary China.

Cast ensemble
Francisco Huergo, HuiShurn Yong, Chris Smith, Viola Wang, Xiao Quan, Neil Redfield, Shan Y.Chuang, Esther Chen and Chien-Lun Lee. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Yangtze will present a new adaptation of the original script that was written in 1999 by Huang WeiRuo and Feng BaiMing. The contemporary part of the play-the troupe’s own story-is devised and created by Chongren Fan and ensemble. The play examines the current theatre world through a comic lens and throughout, the characters are aware of their own theatricality. Director Chongren Fan writes, “We get a taste of what’s going on in contemporary Chinese theater but also get a chance to explore how a theatre troupe works together to create an ensemble work.” The music in the play, composed by Xiren Wang, is new and modern, with a strong innovative approach to ancient Chinese music characteristics.

The production features an ensemble of nine who play various roles in the play. The actors are: Shan Y. Chuang, Esther Chen, Chien-Lun Lee, Xiao Quan, Viola Wang, Neil Redfield, Hui-Shurn Yong, Chris Smith and Francisco Huergo. Set and costume design are by K. K. Wong. Lighting design is by Yi-Chung Chen. Mask design is by Andrew Diaz.

Director Chongren Fan was born in Shanghai and he is a New York-based stage director. Before coming to the U.S., he was Artistic Director of a Shanghai-based musical theatre company, All That Musical, where he directed productions including “Rent,” “Spring Awakening” and “Seasons of Love: A Cabaret.” He holds an MFA in Theatre from Sarah Lawrence College’s Multi-disciplinary Collaborative Theatre Program. He is currently a Resident Director at the Flea Theater, where he directed “The Final Kiss” last fall. He was a Jonathan Alper Directing Fellow at Manhattan Theatre Club where he was assistant director of “The World of Extreme Happiness.” He was assistant director for A.R. Gurney’s “What I Did Last Summer” this season at Signature Theatre. He directed Goldberg Award winning play, “Nightfall,” at NYU Tisch. He has worked on development projects with Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, Ma-Yi Theatre Company, La MaMa, New Ohio Theatre, Dixon Place, Prototype Festival, American Dance Institute and Mecoon Theater (Shanghai, China).

Feng BaiMing (co-author) is a Chinese National First-class Playwright and Member of China’s National Television Drama Committee. His works include the operas “The Prairie,” “Ocean,” “White Reed/Red Kopak,” “My Heart Soars” and “Dragon Fly,” musicals “Equator Rain” and “Drama: Behind The Mask,” and the TV Series “Water Rises in the Wind.” He has received many Chinese national awards and recognitions, including the Five-One Project, Wenhua Award for Outstanding Dramatic Writing, National Stage Arts Project Top Ten Dramatic Works and the Chinese Cao Yu Prize for Drama.

Huang WeiRuo (co-author) is a playwright, dramatic theorist and professor at the Central Academy of Drama in China. His works in recent years include the operas “The Prairie,” “Ocean,” “My Heart Soars” and the drama “Behind The Mask” (all written with Feng BaiMing), also the plays “The King of Chu,” “After Carnal Thoughts,” “Zheng: The King of Qin” and “The Scholar and The Executioner.” His TV series include “The Merchants of Hui” and “Life.” He has been a repeat recipient of many national prizes including the Five-One Project, Wenhua Award for Outstanding Dramatic Writing, Chinese Cao Yu Prize for Drama and The FeiTian Award for Outstanding Television Writing.

Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America (www.yangtze-rep-theatre.org) is one of New York’s most significant entry points for dramatic works from Chinese-speaking countries and a place of collaboration for artists from various parts of Asia. In 1997, Yangtze Rep brought Gao XingJian, the 2000 Nobel laureate in literature, to New York to direct his play “Between Life and Death” at Theater for the New City and for an exhibit of his paintings at Pace Downtown Theater. In 2005, Yangtze presented the New York debut of Beijing People’s Art Theatre, China’s most prestigious theater company, in “Teahouse” by Lao She. Theater for the New City has been home to many of Yangtze Rep’s milestone productions, significantly including its 1997 presentation of “Between Life and Death” by Gao XingJian and its 2001 production of the Chinese fable, “Butterfly Dreams,” which was directed by Wang XiaoYing, Deputy Director of China’s National Theatre.

In addition to works of theater, Yangtze has presented multiple dance productions, musical concerts and a succession of visual art exhibits through the years. In recent seasons, the company had begun a Staged Play Reading Series to nurture emerging Asian playwrights. This is the 32nd mainstage presentation of the company, which was founded in 1992 by Joanna Chan, who handed over leadership of the company on July 1, 2014 to the three-man team of K. K. Wong and Wayne Chang as Co-Artistic Directors and Jason HaoWen Wang as Executive Director, with Chan as Emeritus Director.

This production is made possible, in part, by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Legislature. It is also supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with City Council.

Yangtze Rep presents “Behind the Mask- a Play” June 25 to July 12, 2015 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC (between 9th and 10th Streets). Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $25 general admission and $20 for seniors & students. On Wednesday & Thursday, it’s pay what you can (available day of performance at box office only, advance sales regular price). Purchase tickets online at www.smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. The company’s website is www.yangtze-rep-theatre.org. Please email [email protected] for Chinese language info and reservations.

Jonathan Slaff
Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.