Life as a Chain of Dreams
By Andrew C.C. Huang
(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News)
If a life is composed of a long series of events and dreams, then a story is comprised of a roaster of characters with their life stories interweaving and influencing each other.
In the tradition of the life as dream metaphor of China’s all-time most acclaimed novel “The Dream of the Red Chamber” and western master playwright August Strindberg’s “A Dream Play,” internationally acclaimed director Stanley Lai of the movie “Peach Blossom Dream” fame will bring his outlandishly ambitious theater piece “A Dream Like a Dream” to the audience for the next two weeks.
This Sunday, “A Dream like a Dream” will come to life on stage for the second time at Taipei’s National Theater in celebration of the 20th anniversary for master Lai’s Performance Workshop. An astoundingly ambitious, epic, romantic, poetic, extravagant, mysterious, religious, metaphysical and emotionally powerful play that lasts for the shocking length of seven and half hours, “A Dream like a Dream” written and directed by Lai will runs from April 24 to May 7 for a total of nine performances.
The performance of this 7 1/2 hour play will be divided into two parts. Audience can choose to watch the first part in the afternoon and the second part in the same evening or watch the two parts on two consecutive nights. For the sake of artistic integrity, all audiences are required to purchase the tickets for both parts of the whole play. No purchase of one single ticket for half of the play will be allowed.
However, the unheard of 7 1/2 hour length is not the only history-making feat of “A Dream like a Dream.” In order to tell this unique story that is conceived as one story leading to another and one dream connecting with another, a revolutionary stage structure is needed. The production will completely refashion the existing structure of National Theater in order to build a 360-degree stage that will surround the audiences in the middle. During the performance of this play, the audiences’ seats have been engineered to turn clock-wise slowly as the actors perform their scenes and walk clock-wise on that 360-degree circular stage.
Undisputedly the theater event in Taiwan this year, Lai’s “A Dream like a Dream” has already achieved nearly all sold-out ticket record. The production rounds up 32 top theater actors to play over a hundred roles in this epic work. All the characters in this play except for the role of the Count will be played by at two or three different actors/actresses in order to show the different stage of their lives in a story that takes place against the backdrop of the whole 20th century. Legendary Asian American actress Lisa Lu of the movie “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Last Emperor” fame will portrays the pivotal part of the female protagonist Gu Shiang-lan.
The story of “A Dream like a Dream” is inspired by the book “The Tibetan Book of Living and Death.” The story starts with a young doctor who goes into a hospital to start her career. To her shock, four out of the five patients in the ward she supervised pass away. She learns that she could try to be a sympathetic listener if she is not able to save her patients. Thus, she devotes her time to listen to the life story of the final and the fifth surviving patient. This patient’s story leads to the stories of people he has encounterd in his life and one story leads to another story in a chain of life circle.
The genesis of “A Dream like a Dream” is in itself a legend. “It happened in 1999 during a trip to India,” director Lai reminisces. “I went to that site where Buddha meditated for days before achieving Buddha-hood. I sat down, took out my pen and paper, and was trying to jot down something. The afternoon sunlight shone behind the Tower of Buddha of Wisdom and rendered a glow around that tower. The lotus tree seemed to radiate some mysterious energy. A lot of people were circling the Tower of Buddha of Wisdom clock-wise.”
“Suddenly, the various events in my life and the countless stories I have read and heard surged up in my heart,” Lai recounts. “I felt the accumulative emotions…”The Tibetan Book of Living and Death,” the people who survived the catastrophic train crash at London’s Paddington Station, a diplomat inside a French castle, a woman in China, a love story that lasted for a century….”
“I quickly scribbled down the ideas of this story on that piece of A4 size paper,” Lai explains. “It’s one of those experiences in life in which a story idea has been fermenting inside you for years. Once when that story idea ripens and appears in your heart, all you have to do is just to pour it out, write it down on the paper and start thinking how to make this into an actual work.”
“It’s a story about journey, about a journey within another journey. The story starts with when this character who is near the end of her life,” Says Lai. “Her life story takes place against the backdrop of the entire 20th century. Her life runs from Asia to Europe, from life to death, from pain to the possibility of release.”
“I finished jotting down the ideas on that piece of A4 paper just right as the light went out at the end of dusk,” Lai says.
If the birth of this staggering, epic story came to the page in such a bizarrely spontaneous fashion, the attempts to make this story come alive on the theater stage for the audiences have been decidedly the opposite.
A theatrical super-production is necessary in order to do justice to such a legendary story. A production of this kind would require at least 20 to 30 actors to portray more than 100 characters, with 300 plus costumes, an unheard of 360-degree theater stage that surrounds the audiences, the most daunting two-storey set structure that could represent the various scenes, numerous props of different sizes, and -- last but definitely not the least --, a mega budget that could allow the production to come to fruition.
“We are extremely grateful to the commitment of Taipei’s National Theater. We knew that even with all sold-out tickets, we’ll still have to suffer millions of debt,” says Ting Nai-er, the administrative director of Performance Workshop. “Both the National Theater and the Performance Workshop decided to commit to this project. The only goal for this project is to present the best possible work to the audience without fretting too much about the financial aspects.”
During the dress rehearsal on April 15, this writer witnessed the extraordinary emotional impact of this landmark theater production. Possibly the best work by Lai in his career, this epic story takes place against the backdrop of the entire 20th century with locales ranging from Shanghai, Paris to Taipei. Story wise, Lai draws ideas and facts from “The Tibetan Book of Living and Death,” Tianmen Square incident, the Cultural Revolution and even an ancient Chinese tale about a person who dies simply to realize that he just wakes up from an afternoon nap to create a masterfully done work about life’s journey. As a daring mise-en-scene device, Lai adroitly uses one, two and even three scenes going on simultaneously to show relation between the different stories within the main story. Lai also puts three actors portraying the same role on the stage at the same time, with the oldest version ruminating on his past life while the two younger versions going through their stories in the two different phases of their lives.
For a richly layered and emotionally complex story like this, the casting is central to the success. This production manages to rounds up a cast that is described by director Lai as “the dream team.” The cast includes Hollywood legend Lisa Lu, Taiwan’s premier theater actor Jing Shi-che, Ting Nai-chun and Tang Chi-wei etc.
The involvement of the legendary Lisa Lu is undoubtedly the most fascinating part of the casting. For younger audiences not as familiar with the name Lisa Lu, she is the legendary Chinese American actress who appears as the mother An-Mei in the movie “The Joy Luck Club” adapted from the novel of the same title by Chinese American novelist Amy Tan and as the Empress Dowager in Italian master Bernado Bertolucci’s landmark movie “The Last Emperor” which garnered nine Oscars in 1987. Before she immigrated to the U.S. for her Hollywood career, Lu was already a superstar who won the best actress award twice at the 9th and the 12th edition of Golden Horse Awards in Asia.
“There was never a decision to be made,” Lisa Lu says. “As soon as I got the phone call from Stan, I said ‘yes’ right away.”
“This is such an unique story and theater project. I am so sure it will become another highlight in my career,” opines Lu. “This is a fantastic story and a play that will last for seven and half hours for the audience. No one has ever heard of anything like this! An outlandishly ambitious production like this is not even possible in the western world! But now it’s being done by a Chinese artist in Asia! I jumped at the chance to be part of it.”
“And by the way, I get to have PhD students with Theater major from Beijing University to play the characters who push my wheelchair,” Lu laughs. “How much more fun can it get?!”
“It’s an actor’s dream to be able to work with a good director like Stan. I saw the 2002 version of ‘A Dream like a Dream’ in Hong Kong. I was bowled over by it,” says Lu. “It’s a play that has such depth and scope to it. It has such a great story.”
While the concept of “A Dream like a Dream” is that one story leads to another in life, the structure of the play surrounds itself around the protagonist Gu Shiang-lan, a prostitute in 1930’s China who becomes a painter after she moves to Paris. Actresses Hsu Yen-ling and Ting Nai-chen portray the two different stages of the young Gu during the first half of the play. Beside the appearance in the beginning of the first half, Lu’s part mostly appears in the second half during the older stage of Gu’s life.
“Gu is such a unique character,” says Lu. “She lived a life of such unusual experiences. The education she received in China was very conservative and repressing. She yearned for freedom and chased after it. So she moved to France and started a new life, absorbing all the new ideas and experiences in life.”
“In the beginning of the story when she appears, she is near death,” says Lu. “She is old, embittered, disillusioned with life and smoldering with rage. She started out as a prostitute in China and then moved to France to become a respected painter. She has lived such a legendary life and now she has lost everything. She doesn’t even have any surviving family member and is all alone. She is unable to find her emotional equilibrium even at that old age.” says Lu.
A legendary character, Gu goes from a prostitute in 1930’s Shanghai to become the wife of a French aristocratic Count and then a respected painter. After the death of the Count, Gu goes back to China in 1950’s to join her new husband Wang the tycoon. Unfortunately, the notorious Cultural Revolution swept across China in 1966 and Wang died. However, Gu did not.
“My story was nothing extraordinary. It’s just like everyone else’s story at that time. It was the Cultural Revolution,” As Gu puts it in the story. “Cultural Revolution was the perfect time for any human being to die. My problem was that I did not die back then.”
“She is very impatient and standoff-ish when the young doctor wants to listen to her life story,” Lu adds. “Then she starts telling the story and eventually finds her emotional catharsis through the process of storytelling.”
A director who respects and demands inputs from his actors, Stanley Lai invites the actors to express their opinions in order to incorporate them into the story. Lai knows too well the importance of the interaction between actors and the director in order to create the best work.
“Lisa did not know that’s the way I work in the beginning. I want my actors to pour in their life experiences into the story and help reshaping the story,” says Lai, who pulled an all-nighter on March 27 in order to completely rewrite the part of Gu around Lu. “However,it took her only a few days to adjust to my method and she dived into the character right away.”
“With a part like Gu who has lived through the whole 20th century,” explains Lai. “It’s especially essential for the actress who portrays Gu to bring her own life experiences into this character.”
“True, I am the author who invented the character of Gu. However, I am in my 50’s and Gu the character has lived through the 20th century. I am not going to pretend that I know Gu the character better than Lisa,” Lai adds. “I called up Lisa because she is the one and the only perfect candidate to play this part in my mind. Lisa herself has lived a legendary life with different phases in China, Hong Kong and the U.S. She was a legend already during Shaw Brothers’ golden age in the 60’s and then moved on to have a Hollywood career. No one knows this part better than Lisa. She develops and enriches the part of Gu in ways that I could not possibly imagined.”
The 2002 version of “A Dream like a Dream” produced at the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre featured the legendary Hong Kong actress Wong Ming Tsuen as Gu. A highly acclaimed smash hit, that production ended up winning the Best Group Performance Award, the Best Costume Design Award and the Best Supporting Actor Award at the 12th Hong Kong Theatre Awards.
“Wong is a fantastic actress too and delivered a great performance. However, for that 2002 version, we only had six weeks’ time to rehearse. It did not really do the story justice,” Lai explains. “This time we have Lisa as Gu and the whole cast devotes three month to rehearse and develop this story. I am absolutely sure this will be the best version of ‘A Dream like a Dream’.”
“A Dream like a Dream” has had two academia productions at University of California at Berkeley and Taipei Arts University before receiving its first commercial production in 2002.
“During the very first rehearsal session at U.C. Berkeley, we spent 12 hours before finishing the rehearsal,” Lai laughs. “By the end, all the students were nearly comatose and I passed out!”
“For a commercial production of this play, I decided early on that it has to be limited to seven or eight hours,” Lai explains. “We knew that we had to let the audiences out by 11 p.m. so that they could catch the last subway ride home.”
“However, it’s a compromise for now,” Lai says. “I dream about making this story into a movie or a TV series someday.”
“For anyone who worries that he might fall asleep during the seven and half hours of this play, don’t. No one fell asleep during the Hong Kong version in 2002,” Lai says. “Actually, most of the audiences expressed that this play was too short at seven hours. They wanted to see more of it, the real full version of this story.”
“’A Dream like a Dream’ came so naturally to me. It’s possibly the story of my career, the best story I could come up with in my life,” Lai concludes. “I promise that it’s a great story. It’s an once-in-a-lifetime experience. When an audience comes here to invest one whole day of his life watching this play, it will become the experience of his life. He will remember this story for the rest of his life.”
(“A Dream like a Dream” produced by Performance Workshop will run at Taipei’s National Theater from April 24 to May 7. For ticket and schedule info, please contact the National Theater at (02) 3393-9888 or the site www.artsticket.com.tw . You can also contact the Performance Workshop at (02)2698-2323 or the site www.pwshop.com )