As I did in November for Golden Child (see my report on 9 December), I picked up an individual seat for David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad at the Signature Theatre Company. I’ve known about Hwang by reputation for a long time, but the only play of his that I’d seen before this season was the Broadway rendition of M. Butterfly back in 1988-90 so when STC announced that Hwang would be the occupant of its Residency One for 2012-13, I decided to try to catch the three plays on the bill. (Kung Fu, the writer’s new play, will première at STC in September.) So far, I’ve been intrigued and thrilled with the plays (and their productions) and I feel I’ve successfully introduced myself to an artist about whom I’ve read for many years but haven’t really experienced. Hwang has proved he’s one of those playwrights who always has something interesting and worthwhile to say and a wonderfully, idiosyncratically theatrical way of saying it.
When I write my performance reports for ROT, I include a survey of the press responses (and I will in this case, too, before I’m finished), but I make a point of not reading the published notices before I see the performance. The only review I read ahead of time is the New York Times and that’s only because I subscribe and it comes to my home. So I was a little disheartened last month when I read Charles Isherwood’s rather wan appraisal of the STC revival of Dance. Now, I know not to invest too much in the opinions of other theatergoers, and there are some reviewers with whose assessments I’ve had repeated disagreements so that I discount them until I see for myself. But I’ve often found that I agree with Isherwood’s estimation of a performance (though not always, as witness my bitter dispute with him over his review of the Atlantic Theater Company’s staging of What Rhymes With America last December: he loved it, I . . . well, I didn’t; see my report posted on 3 January). What the reviewer did this time was contrast the performances of Ruy Iskandar and Yuekun Wu at STC with the work of Tzi Ma and John Lone in the roles they originated in 1981 (and for whom Hwang named the characters). “Absent performances of memorable intensity and lyricism ,” declared Isherwood, “the Signature revival . . . exposes the play’s thin texture.” Because I was as interested in seeing the play as in enjoying the production, I wasn’t too trepidatious, but I was taken aback. I’m pleased to report, though, that in my estimation, the Times reviewer was wrong. I never saw the 1981 production and can’t make the judgment Isherwood made—actually, Isherwood didn’t see it, either, it seems—but I didn’t find the “thin texture” of which the Timesman complained. Indeed, I found the play richly textured and, for a 70-minute one-act, chock full of ideas and themes. I’ll get to the specifics in a bit, but I was delighted with both the play and the staging.
Let me get the facts out of the way. I saw the performance under the threat of a nor’easter predicted to hit New York on the evening of Wednesday, 6 March (which ended up not striking the city at all that night). Staged in STC’s Alice Griffin Theatre, the little proscenium space in the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row, the production has been extended one week through 24 March. (The show began previews on 5 February and opened on 25 February.) The Dance and the Railroad premièred in a production of the New Federal Theater at the Henry Street Settlement (not coincidentally, an organization for immigrant Americans founded in 1893) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on 25 March 1981, having been commissioned by, of all agencies, the federal Department of Education. It moved to the Public Theater in July and ran there until December. Since then, the play has been periodically revived at such regional theatres as the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco (1983-84) and the East West Players of Los Angeles (1992-93). The STC production is the first revival in New York City since the 1981 première.
Performed without an intermission on an expressionistic set, The Dance and the Railroad is the tale of two Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad, 20-year-old Lone and 18-year-old Ma, who, during the Chinese Railroad Workers’ Strike of 1867, form a unique friendship on a California mountaintop in the Sierra Nevadas. The two, along with their unseen co-workers below, struggle through poverty, loneliness, cultural separation, and hunger to reconnect with the traditions of their homeland, symbolized by Lone’s devotion to Chinese opera. Lone was an acting student of great promise (“I was one of the best in my class,” he tells Ma) when he left the training academy and his homeland two years earlier to make money for his family and Ma asks the older man to teach him the art. Through the exploration of the demanding techniques of Chinese opera, an ancient art form that requires discipline, focus, patience, and devotion—none of which the impetuous, mercurial Ma seems to possess—that Lone and Ma learn not just about one another and their shared heritage, but their current lives on Gold Mountain. (Though many Chinese in North America in the 19th century worked in domestic service, ran laundry services, and, as Lone and Ma do, helped build the transcontinental railroad, most came here to dig for gold in California’s gold rush, 1848–1855. The colloquial name of California among the Chinese, here and at home, was Gold Mountain—though it sometimes also referred specifically to San Francisco, the port of debarkation for passengers from Asia. In Hwang’s play, Gold Mountain is the mythical California of abundant gold, limitless opportunity, and potentially vast wealth that the Chinese expatriates planned to bring back home.) I’ll try to illuminate how Hwang has used Chinese opera not just as an element of the story, but as an integral part of the structure of The Dance and the Railroad as I get into more detail, but it’s not by accident or casualness that the "dance" in the play’s title refers to this complex Chinese art form. It is, I think, a mark of just how imaginatively talented Hwang is as a playwright and artist—and that makes his plays add up to much more than the sum of their components. As you can tell, I’ve become very taken with this writer’s work. I hope I can articulate why.
According to Hwang, he was inspired to write Dance to accommodate the talents of actor John Lone. Hwang, Lone and Tzi Ma had all worked together in 1980 on Hwang’s first play, FOB, and the playwright had begun to learn about Cantonese opera from Lone “who was raised in that form when he was a kid in Hong Kong.” (Tzi Ma, who was not trained in opera, knew a great deal about Chinese dance. Lone directed and choreographed Dance when it was staged at the New Federal Theater and the Public.) Hwang also wanted to write a historical play and the transcontinental railroad seemed an accessible subject; then the author discovered the strike episode which depicted the Chinese immigrants in a light counterintuitive to the general impression of them as “subservient and victims.” The play, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education as one of four plays, was originally written for young audiences who would be brought in from their schools for daytime performances; but the company gave one evening presentation which Frank Rich attended. The Times reviewer praised the show (“Stage: ‘Dance, Railroad,’ By David Henry Hwang,” New York Times 31 March 1981) and Joseph Papp, impresario of the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater), transferred the production to the Anspacher Theater. (Lone won an Obie Award in 1981 for his performances in Dance and FOB and Hwang won one for FOB.)
I only know a little about Chinese opera, but there are several strong similarities with other traditional Asian theater forms, including Indian kathakali and Indonesian wayang oreng, and I have read some about all of those and seen performances on video. (I’ve only seen one live Chinese opera performance, 30 years ago in the People’s Republic. There are several regional styles of Chinese opera, of which Beijing, formerly Peking, opera is the best known. In the play, Lone was a student of Beijing style.) I do know something more about kabuki and that 17th-century Japanese theater is a derivative of Chinese opera with which the Japanese art shares many parallels. All of these performance forms are highly stylized, relying on abstract presentations of actions and even objects over literal representations. Elaborate costumes and makeup, much of which is also very symbolic, take precedence over sets and props (which are often represented by simple objects such as fans and staves), and all of these arts combine singing, dance, and acting in equal measure (along with music and sound effects). That the Chinese form is called opera and kabuki is often described as dance drama only shows how, unlike western performance, theater in many Asian cultures never fragmented as it did in Europe. Chinese “opera” is no more a singer’s medium than kabuki is a dancer’s—the artists in those forms and the others I named do it all with equal skill and accomplishment. It therefore requires decades of dedicated study and training to become even a journeyman artist in those theaters, and most performers begin working on their skills at very early ages (much younger than the 18-year-old Ma in Dance) and continue to train with masters in all the arts (acting, singing, dance, musicianship, martial arts, speech, acrobatics, and several more) all their performing lives. (Hwang acknowledges that one point he’s making in Dance is an acknowledgement “of what it is going to mean to live that life [of a theater artist], to have that experience. The things that are gained and the things that are lost and the things you have to sacrifice and the things you have to work for—all of that became part of the relationship between Ma and Lone and what they teach each other.” He was thinking of himself as well as artists like Lone.) At 18, after eight years at the academy, Lone tells us he was still in training in China; despite his apparent talent, he wasn’t yet ready to appear on public stages. (A contributing factor to the length and rigor of the apprenticeship is the fact, as demonstrated by Lone’s exercises in Dance, that all the movements, dance steps, and even vocalizations are artificial—they’re not natural physicalizations.) In kabuki, an 18-year-old might be doing tertiary roles in productions with his father or grandfather in leads, but he—all these theaters were traditionally all-male forms (though women performed in Beijing opera from just before the foundation of the Chinese republic in 1911)—wouldn’t graduate to star parts until he was well into his 30’s or even 40’s. The training is rigorous and takes all day for students. Working actors will take a class in dance or martial arts or some other skill between performances, rushing off to the master’s studio or the training academy and back to the theater for the next show. Even when they become established and recognized actors, a kabuki performer might grab a class once a week or more if he feels he needs to brush up or work out a problem. It quite literally never ends: it’s not a life for the dilettante or the weekend duffer.
The playwright has said that he’s “always been attracted and continue to be attracted to a formal challenge” such as offered by Chinese opera. “I want to do something new with the form of theatre,” Hwang says.
And, I started to realize that I was writing Chinese American stories. It felt to me that it wasn’t sufficient to put that within the same forms as traditional western naturalism. . . . I had to find an Asian American form, which is how I began to incorporate Chinese Opera. . . . But this was my way of trying to find a form that fit the content.
In Dance, Chinese opera serves as a metaphor for the cultural heritage Lone and Ma and the other ChinaMen (as Hwang’s characters call each other—they stress the second syllable: chinaMAN and chinaMEN) have left behind in Fujian province and are starting to lose the longer they stay in America. Lone has separated himself from the other ChinaMen, much to their displeasure, so as not be sucked into the identity-obliterating quicksand of the half-assimilated, half-alien émigré world; his cultural anchor is his opera training, which keeps him connected to home but also makes him different from his countrymen. They spend their time gambling on dice games, drinking, singing songs (and one can just guess what kind), and telling stories (and lies). Lone spends his up on a rock outcropping dancing and practicing martial arts. (Is it a coincidence, given the origin of the characters’ names, that his name is Lone? Maybe, but it sure is appropriate.) Ma climbs up to join Lone in his aerie on the excuse of warning him that the other workers don’t like him because they think he feels he’s better than they are. (He does, in fact, he admits.) They plan to punish Lone, Ma tells him, and perhaps even hurt him for his arrogance. Ma then asks Lone to teach him the opera. With all the bravado and impetuosity of a teenager just beginning to feel his sap rising, Ma bargains and badgers Lone and eventually convinces the dancer to become his master, even showing Lone that he can conquer his quicksilver attention span. As much as Ma wants to find a connection to something beyond the dreams of Gold Mountain, Lone clearly needs to connect to another person. Lone, after all, is only two years older than Ma, though he seems decades more mature—but he’s still really only a boy himself. It really doesn’t take Lone long to agree to train Ma, as if he just needed someone to talk to and spend his isolation with. The opera is the means for him to do that, for both men to reach out and connect and hold on to something Chinese.
But the opera becomes something else, too, in Hwang’s hands. It’s part of the story, it’s an element of the play’s theme, but it’s also part of the play’s dramaturgy. First of all, Hwang has stated that “I’m very driven by form,” and points to his new play, Kung Fu, which “is not a musical but has dance and live music.” The Dance and the Railroad isn’t a dance play or a ballet, but it has dance and movement at its core. Further, aside from the exercises Lone and Ma execute as they debate their lives as laborers and outsiders, Ma enacts an opera about himself (self-absorbed teen that he still is!), his life and his future as a rich and powerful man back in China, and Lone joins him in the impromptu performance. Like Ma’s fantasies themselves, Chinese opera is not only highly symbolic and stylized, it's impossibly romanticized. An opera hero isn’t even a Hollywood hero—he’s a full-sized version of a children’s-story hero: he’s invincible, he’s unbelievably powerful and clever, he’s unflinchingly brave and loyal, and he can do things no human could ever do. (Think Chinese martial arts movies only with fantastic makeup and live. Opera battle scenes are amazing feats of acrobatics and martial arts!)—and though Ma doesn’t get to go that far, his impulse is to portray himself as the greatest opera hero in the literature, Gwan Gung (a role it would take a real opera actor decades to be able to play), whom Hwang calls “a really great super hero.”
The aesthetics of most of the highly conventionalized theaters is complex and esoteric, having been refined over centuries of practice. Put simplistically, however, Chinese opera emphasizes beauty and stylization over psychological truth and imitation of life. So, while Ma values how his co-workers feel about him and whether they win their strike against their American bosses, Lone is only concerned with his own integrity regardless of how others see him and how the striking men face their commitment, not whether they win in the end. Daily reality or eternal values—popular songs and stories down in the camp, or the aesthetic rigors of opera dance and the discipline of martial arts up on the mountain? Impetuosity and impatience or control and inner strength? Wealth and twenty wives, or the richness of ritual and the beauty of tradition. The surprise is that this seems like a set-up for Lone to vanquish and humiliate the naïve and gullible Ma or for Ma to become a disciple of master Lone. But what Hwang does is let Ma’s innate strength—the callowness is a mask, the way he meets the world in contrast to Lone’s aloofness—win Lone over. Lone never entertained the possibility that a man can be all that Ma seems to be and still have the fortitude to have the drive to endure the demands of the opera.
Directed by May Adrales, whose previous work I haven’t seen, the STC revival of The Dance and the Railroad is presented in the little Griffin on a set designed by Mimi Lien as an expressionistic rock outcropping high above the workers’ camp. Lit abstractly by Jiyoun Chang with washes of multiple hues, the large, brown sculptural slabs, like something abstracted from the old 1960’s Star Trek, a kind of alien landscape of stark levels and planes, serve as a kind of jungle gym for the performers as they climb, hop, and slide around the several levels and surfaces. In a guide for directors written by my friend (and frequent ROT contributor) Kirk Woodward, he advises: “[A]sk yourself outlandish questions like these: Will this set be fun for the actors? Will it be a space that will inspire and challenge them? Will they have a good time in it?” Lien’s set for Dance certainly answers those questions in the affirmative. (Kirk’s book, “The Director’s Book of Weird Ideas,” will appear in ROT in a four-part reduction entitled “Reflections on Directing” in April.)
The abstract setting contrasts nicely with the realistic costumes of Jennifer Moeller, based obviously on the stereotypical 19th-century garb of the Chinese immigrant—both men even wear their hair in queues, Lone’s beneath a skullcap. The expressionistic set also compliments the stylized movements of the Beijing opera dance and martial arts gestures Lone performs through much of the play as he teaches Ma his art and his discipline. While the set is mostly jagged edges and flat surfaces, Chinese opera stresses curves and arcs, avoiding sharp angles.
There’s another contrast, one which Isherwood noted in his review, that I think is theatrically interesting. The play is set in 1867 and, along with Moeller’s costumes, the content of Hwang’s dialogue is perfectly in line with the time. This isn’t a play with a temporal disconnect—what we know and believe now put into the mouths of characters living almost 150 years ago. But Lone and Ma speak in a colloquial style more like today’s youth. It’s not intrusive or emphatic, and it’s handled unselfconsciously by the actors, but it is noticeable. My sense was that what we were hearing was a “universal translator’s” rendition (think Star Trek again) of the conversational Chinese Lone and Ma would actually be speaking to one another, rather than a stilted English or even an approximation of 19th-century English (as heard, perhaps, on screen in Lincoln). I imagine Hwang used this convention deliberately, and it worked fine as far as I was concerned. (I’m not sure Isherwood’s observation was really a complaint, but he did make a note of it.)
Isherwood’s main complaint, as I noted, was the difference in stature between the performances by the original Lone and Ma (John Lone and Tzi Ma) and Yuekun Wu and Ruy Iskandar at STC. Since, as I said, I didn’t see the 1981 performances, I can’t really make a comparison, but I can’t offer any complaints about the work of the two accomplished actors I saw. I’ve never seen either man’s work before, but I had no problem believing the circumstances in which their Lone and Ma were supposed to be existing or the unique relationship the two actors develop between them. Iskandar, whom I suspect is a few years older than Ma’s 18 (he finished NYU grad school three years ago), captures the younger man’s loose physicality and eager demeanor with conviction—helped, in no small measure, by his baby face. Iskandar’s Ma is a thoroughly charming adolescent naïf. I don’t know how much previous experience either actor had with Chinese opera (there’s a credited Chinese Opera Consultant, Qian Yi, to whom I give great acknowledgment), but Iskandar displays the kind of determination of a novice at a not-quite-learned skill—concentration and tenuous physical control he struggles to maintain. His dialogue betrays a boy trying to seem like a man, and the actor embodies this trait thoroughly, an eager puppy trying not just to please his master but to impress him—“A child who tries to advise a grown man,” Lone calls him. Though it’s never certain that Ma will succeed, Iskandar demonstrates his resolve time and time again, even as the character complains about being made to endure meaningless drills.
As Lone, Yuekun Wu, though only a few years older than Ma is supposed to be, comes off as the grown-up. While Iskandar moves with the loose and casual physicality of a contemporary teen, Wu’s Lone is more formal, both in speech and movement, the result, I imagine, of Lone’s traditional opera training. As with Iskandar, I don’t know if Wu had any previous training in Beijing opera, and there was an occasional tentativeness in his movements, but the actor manages to be convincingly expert in the context of the performance. At least Wu made me believe he knew what he was doing and he projects an air of self-confidence and poise. While I could see Iskandar’s Ma watching his own moves, like a tyro dancer learning new steps, Wu’s Lone is sure of himself, at least in the presence of Ma. Still, Lone is only 20 himself, not so much more of a grown man than Ma, and he seems to need a companion, someone with whom he can share his solitary devotion to the dance, and Wu lets us see his suppressed pleasure at having Ma come along, even as Lone berates the younger man. As much as Lone sets himself up as the father to Ma’s son, Wu occasionally lets us see—a brief hesitation to criticize, a fleeting smile at an accomplishment—that it’s really closer to two adolescent friends, one a year or two older but not yet beyond the need to be part of a group—even a group of two. Maybe what I witnessed was the result of two actors having come into their roles more completely than they’d been at the critics’ preview Isherwood saw. It happens.
Since I’ve already cited some of Timesman Isherwood’s remarks, I’ll let him lead off the review wrap-up. He called the STC staging of Dance a “tepid, almost soporific revival” which “gets mighty thin as this short play ambles along.” In the New York Post, however, Frank Scheck declared that “Hwang’s moving drama” is “worth the journey.” He issued the caveat that the short play “is more of a vignette than a fully fleshed-out drama” and that “what we see” is more important that what we hear, but acknowledged that director Adrales “fully mines the play’s emotional richness.” Joe Dziemianowicz of New York’s Daily News wrote only that this was a “well-acted” performance and implied that Dance is a lesser Hwang work, but gave little more of an evaluation. Neither did Linda Winer, who commented in the Long Island Newsday only that “[t]he dialogue is jarringly modern and a little dull,” but that she could “watch [Yuekun] Wu dance all night.”
The New Yorker dismissed the production by declaring that “Hwang’s cerebral dialogue rarely moves from the head to the heart, so the performances at times seem self-conscious and wooden.” In New York magazine, Scott Brown observed that the STC revival of Dance possesses “sparkling charm and flawless comedy” and pronounced the play “perhaps the purest, most poetic distillation of Hwang's wry lostness and dislocation.” Helen Shaw in Time Out New York asserted that beyond the Signature Theatre, “this elegant two-hander wouldn’t get a hearing, since its tidy rewards do not outstrip its compact size,” but continued that “this production sets off the small jewel [of the Griffin Theatre] perfectly, so we can consider its frequently affecting facets in proportion and comfort.” Shaw noted that “Hwang didn’t always balance his fable structure with thematic complexity,” but insisted that the “graceful, extended climax,” the opera improvised by Ma and Lone, “deepens the piece immeasurably” and “creates the sense that an epic—tragic and globe-spanning—has been folded infinitely small, and we have stumbled across it, curled up and hidden inside a short story.” (Of all the critical comments, Shaw’s captures my response the best.)
The “elegant and disciplined revival” of Dance at STC, wrote Erik Haagensen in Back Stage, is “an unlikely but fascinating mixture of Chinese opera staging techniques and a naturalistic drama.” “The simple but gorgeous physical production,” declared Haagensen, “is a stunner.” Complaining that the play’s occasionally “a bit intellectualized” making it seem distant, the Back Stage reviewer concluded that “the play always recovers quickly. Inventive and deeply felt, ‘The Dance and the Railroad’ is memorable theater.” In the cyber press, Zachary Stewart declared on TheaterMania that “Hwang takes a big risk by employing such an idiosyncratic form, the combination of naturalism and Cantonese opera—and it pays off.” Dance, which Stewart observed “still feels fresh” even after 32 years since its début, is “formally innovative, crystal clear in its story-telling, but not overly-simplistic.” The play is “brief but impactful,” said Matthew Murray on Talkin’ Broadway. Comparing this 1981 drama with some of Hwang’s recent plays, Murray noted that Dance “captivates as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does . . . trusting you—like the characters—to develop your own perspective and point of view.” Murray voiced some significant reservations, too, however: the play’s short length “is not quite sufficient for exploring all the complexities Hwang introduces” and Adrales’s staging “does not contribute much additional weight.” The acting, however, compensates for many of the deficiencies and the play still provokes, Murray affirmed, because it explores significant questions. On CurtainUp, Deirdre Donovan pronounced that STC’s production is “a bang-up revival” which has “struck gold with two talented young performers.”
Almost all the review-writers mentioned the truths Hwang explores in Dance, the sociological and historical values it incorporates as the writer tells his tale. Even the reviewers who had little to say about the quality of the script or Adrales’s revival paid at least passing notice to Hwang’s content. This is what has grabbed me in Hwang’s work so far. In addition to his distinctive use of various kinds of theatricality, drawing on both western and eastern elements, Hwang wants to explore ideas. “I need to have a question” in order to write, explained the playwright. “There’s something I don’t understand, and I write the play to find out how I feel about the issue.” I can’t imagine a better impetus to write—plays, stories, essays, whatever—and a dramatist who has something he or she wants . . . no, needs to explore is well on his or her way to becoming an important writer. If he’s also theatrically clever and inventive, if he’s also good with words and characters, he’s going to get my attention sooner or, as with Hwang, later. I can’t get to an allusion to Shakespeare or Chekhov (actually, I suppose Ibsen would be a better icon to invoke here), which is what people like to do with serious dramatists, but when Hwang speaks, I want to hear—and see—what he says. Maybe that’s not enough, but it’s a hell of a start. I may have come late to this party—but I’m mighty glad I got here in the end.
[I don’t usually add a note to the end of one of my performance reports on ROT, but this post comes out near an auspicious date for the blog. Yesterday, 16 March, was Rick On Theater’s fourth anniversary. According to the tally, this will be my 308th post as well—not that I wrote all of them. I have selected them all, occasionally asked friends and colleagues to write one (or more in some cases), and I have added introductions and exit comments to most of the articles that I haven’t composed myself. I named the blog Rick On Theater because I expected it to be a home for my performance reports, but I knew I’d be filling the gaps between plays with other articles on topics I thought would be interesting—at least to me. I’ve covered other performing arts (“Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time” by Kirk Woodward, 1 November 2011) and the visual arts (“Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit Artist,” 28 September 2009); I’ve published on many culturally-related subjects (“Susanne Langer: Art, Beauty, & Theater,” 4 & 8 January 2010), often expressing my own opinions (and sometimes those of other people), but always intending to inform. The same has been so of the articles I’ve posted that bear no relationship to the arts or culture, like the personal reminiscences (“The Berlin Wall,” 29 November 2009) and articles about curiosities (“Crypto-Jews: Legacy of Secrecy,” 15 September 2009) and interesting historical oddities (“Guy Debord & The Situationists,” 3 February 2012). I hope I’ve hit the target more often than not, but I’ll keep on going in the same direction in any case, because it’s all I know to do. I read all the comments and reply to most of them, but in the end, I’m the editor and publisher of ROT, as well as its principal contributor, so I only have my imagination on which to rely. I’m pretty much a geezer now, but I’m not doddering yet. Being a geezer has its benefits, too: it means I’ve been around the block a few times. Maybe I’ve seen a thing or two en route. Meanwhile, I plan to keep on truckin’ for at least another year and a couple of hundred more posts. Join me—and tell your friends. ~Rick]