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'Chinese Comedy' Stands Up for Traditional Art

CULTURE PEARLS. This column is one in an occasional series of looks at ethnic arts and culture in and around Orange County.

January 06, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition

"Chinese Comedy in the Late 20th Century," Friday and Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, not only recounts the story of Chinese comedy in the late 20th Century, but having breathed new life into what was otherwise a relic from another era, it is the story of Chinese comedy in the late 20th Century.

"When the Communists took over China in 1949 and the Nationalist government moved to Taiwan, xiangsheng --Chinese stand-up comedy--just died, disappeared," Stan Lai explained in a phone interview from his home in Taiwan. "Some xiangsheng actors came to Taiwan, but the masters stayed on the mainland. In the '70s, the most famous duo broke up, and that was it, the end of the whole tradition."

Not exactly. Back in Taiwan after graduating from UC Berkeley with a Ph.D. in dramatic art, Lai founded Performance Workshop, and in 1985, focusing on xiangsheng and using improvisational techniques, the group produced its first artistic and commercial success.

The play, "Chinese Comedy in the Late 20th Century," Lai said, "pays tribute to an art form that for us has died. But we use that art form to pay the tribute. So while my concept was 'xiangsheng is gone, and if its time has come, it should go,' since the play became so popular the form has been revived. Now it's come back.

"I guess I was wrong."

The Washington, D.C.-born Lai, 37, has been based in Taiwan since age 12. Performance Workshop is considered Taiwan's leading contemporary theater group, and its first feature film, "The Peach Blossom Land" (1992), recently won best film and best director awards at the Singapore International Film Festival.

The group's Irvine performances are sponsored by Bravi 9 Inc., a nonprofit organization formed to respond to growing local demand for multicultural experiences. In 1992, Bravi 9 purchased and installed supertitle equipment in the Barclay's Cheng Hall.

Ironically, Lai is "dead set" against supertitles for his work.

"I would say no, no, no, that we've been to California twice, and there's enough demand from the Mandarin-speaking audience!" he said.

"Most of my work is very verbal. If we do supertitles, you're going to be looking at a waterfall, because of the speed (at which the dialogue unfolds). And a lot of things just wouldn't translate. Humor is cultural, and often very local."

He also pointed out the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western stand-up humor.

"Like vaudeville in the West, there is one straight man and one comic," Lai said. "But the basic formula for constructing a punch line in xiangsheng is 'three rolls and one unraveling.' The great xiangsheng routines are structured with a rhythm repeated three times. You slowly wrap the bundle, you throw the bundle open.

"I have a very shallow understanding of Western stand-up comedy, but that rhythm is basically one setup and one punch line, so Chinese stand-up humor unfolds much more slowly and graciously. People (from other cultures) can get used to that rhythm, but it may take some adjusting."

According to Lai, today's Chinese stand-up comics base their repertory on century-old routines. He cited one "very beautiful, very funny" example in which the emperor dies, and all the Peking actors have to change jobs because singing is prohibited.

"They become street vendors," Lai related. "They're lousy at selling, but they're so good at the hawking itself that everybody comes to listen. The routine unfolds as a brilliant commentary on politics and repression."

"Chinese Comedy in the Late 20th Century," which also plays Jan. 14 and 15 at San Gabriel Auditorium, similarly balances light and dark elements.

"What is your attitude toward traditions that die, for instance?" Lai posed. "Perhaps you can say they should die, that people want fast and vulgar, not sophisticated and gracious. . . .

"The special quality of this play is that we're dealing always with black, with the death of things. Yet it unfolds in such a way that the audience just laughs and laughs and laughs."

What: Performance Workshop's "Chinese Comedy in the Late 20th Century," in Mandarin.

When: Friday and Saturday, Jan. 7 and 8, at 8 p.m.

Where: Cheng Hall at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Jamboree Road exit and head south. Turn left onto Campus Drive.

Wherewithal: $10 to $35.

Where to call: (714) 856-6616.

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