Taking Tiger Mountain by StrategyBy Guo Tai Gong
Directed by Evan Moritz
Through June 8 at Annex Theater
One of the Eight Model Works allowed during the Cultural Revolution, the original Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, written by Guo Tai Gong, was blatant propaganda meant to inspire support for the Communists and disdain for political dissenters, so the line between good and bad was firmly drawn. In director Evan Moritz's adaptation, the rigid characterization is kept: The Communist good guys are smart, heroic, and law abiding; the bandit bad guys are stupid, clumsy, animalistic drunks. As a result of the cartoon-like characterization, the actors have the luxury of ignoring nuance. The bandits, played by Kris Hanrahan, Leeann Monat, and Sarah Lamar, twitch about the stage with bulging eyes, bared teeth, -everything but foaming mouths. Instead of showing versatility in their roles, the actors in this play show how much they can exaggerate an archetype. That's not to say that the actors here don't have versatility, just that these characters don't call for it. The majority of the actors take on more than one role, most of which are too small to really develop a character, but Hanrahan is able to be convincing both as an old villager and a deranged bandit. Sarah Jacklin (who played Achilles, another male hero, in Yellow Sign's This Bird's Flown a couple years ago) has the task of playing the character with the most layers: Yang is unquestionably our hero, he works as a double agent for part of the play. Though Yang's ruse is only convincing enough to fool unwitting bandits, it still makes him the only character with any sort of depth. The actors play their over-the-top characters with conviction, but it doesn't seem to be at all serious-Vulture (played by Maria Radulescu), the bandit leader, stomps about in bedazzled armor and a fur-lined cape. While making it overly cheeky would have been annoying, the opera itself is so essentially ridiculous that trying to make it entirely serious would have been impossible.
If there is anything about Moritz's adaptation that passes judgment on the political subject matter, it is its darkly futuristic strangeness. But in general, the propagandistic undertones in the play aren't addressed, they're just sort of there. In one scene, Hunter Chang, played by Hanrahan, is convinced to support the Communists by his daughter's song, mentioning his former ignorance and the laziness of "moderates." The historical context makes this all a little unsettling. But this play isn't being performed to propagate Chairman Mao's political agenda. It's being performed by an experimental theater in Station North and it's hard not to wonder why Annex Theater chose this play. Without knowing how Mao's Cultural Revolution turned out, the Communists can almost appear as genuinely heroic as they defeat the bandits, who are seriously depraved (they throw babies!). And the good-guy army is referred to in a general way as communist, not, more specifically, as Red Guards. When Yang over-eagerly declares his willingness to rat out his fellow soldiers, perhaps he is acting justly, rather than contribute to the endless accusations of the Little Red Book era.
Clearly, Moritz isn't trying to give the audience a history lesson; he doesn't provide any historical background for the play. But, it's still hard to separate the narrative from its original context-even if it's interesting enough to try. Ignoring history, it's easy enough to get swept up in the action-movie heroism of the plot. Somehow, Annex succeeds in holding these two contradictory principles-narrative thrill and historical reality-together. Instead of diminishing the uncomfortable undertones, Moritz allows them to stand out. And the weird parts just sort of happen.