September 2006

The Tang Concubines
presented by Sight, Sound & Action, Ltd.

Written, Co-Produced & Directed by Dennis K. Law, MD

Co-Production & Dance Art Direction by Moon Lee Law • Music Composed by Hao Weiya
Choreography by Han Feng • Martial Arts Choreography by Liang Huiling

September 7 – 16, 2006Toronto Centre for the ArtsToronto
by Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
The Tang Concubines, is a sumptuous spectacle comprised of stunning costumes, inspired choreography, breathtaking artistic performances, thrilling martial arts sequences, and traditional Chinese music that is ancient in the extreme. Produced, written and directed by the talented Law family, this show is the third in a cycle of productions that make up The Second Annual Chinese Performing Arts Festival — the other two splendiferous Chinese-centric shows being Terracotta Warriors and Of Heaven & Earth, which received rave reviews, and appeared on the boards of the same venue last month.

The Tang Concubines tells the stories of two of Chinese history’s best known female characters, Wu Ze Tian, China’s first and only Empress and Yang Gui Fei, one of the most beautiful women in China, and devoted concubine of Emperor Xuan Zong. These two important figures lived during the period of the powerful and splendid Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), unrivaled for its art, culture, prosperity and sexual openness. Although Yang Gui Fei was born a mere seven years following the death of Empress Wu Ze Tian, the two stories, which are presented in separate acts, are a synchronistic fit.

The action of the play reveals not only the inner workings of the Chinese royal courts of antiquity, but provides insight into the drastically different motivations, and yet somewhat parallel lives and personalities of these two dynamic women. The two plots are each moved along by the scheming and manipulative ‘Eunuchs’ — both of whom seem to be very toxic and dangerous characters in spite of (or perhaps because of) their androgynous and un-natural behaviours.

The stirring traditional and original music was composed/arranged by Hao Weiya, a major figure at the highly regarded Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Percussionist and Musical Director Jin Tao, has got to be one of the hardest-working men in show business. The small, live ensemble includes Jin on a wide variety of traditional Chinese percussion instruments, as well as two additional female musicians performing on traditional Chinese string instruments.

A large amount of the mesmerizing music is on pre-recorded tracks, however, when played with the addition of the in-theatre musicians, the compositions lose none of their power. The musicians — as well as the entire cast — are costumed in remarkable period outfits of considerable artistry.

The innovative brilliance of costumer Mo Xioamin is evident in how well the wardrobe functions, not only from a visual point-of-view, but as utilitarian dance outfits that must allow the actors to perform the most intricate and gymnastic choreography created by the young genius, Jonathan Feng Han. The costumes created for the unforgettable martial arts sequences (choreographed by Fan Dong Yu) needed to be historically correct, believable as ancient armour, and yet totally pliable. This was a daunting and essential task that was exceptionally and expertly done. If the costumes had not been believable, nothing else onstage would have been either.

The colourful and exciting set and lighting design help make The Tang Concubines a treat for the eye, ear, mind, heart and soul. A gorgeous vocalist appears interstitially throughout the play, rendering beautiful compositions — both traditional and especially composed for The Tang Concubines. Although the two plots may seem a bit oblique at times, there is no need for worry, as the major plot points (which include shocking depictions of both infanticide and suicide) and song titles are tastefully displayed (in both English and Chinese) on two video screens at stage right and stage left.

The whole experience of The Tang Concubines was moving on a number of levels, and provided an expansive learning curve for the entire audience, as well as lifting the veil a bit on the mysterious world of ancient China. I look forward to many more illuminating productions from the Law family, and their nearly single-handed creation of a new theatrical genre, the Chinese 'Action Musical'. Bravo!

We welcome your comments and feedback
Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
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