Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy By Guo Tai Gong
Directed by Evan Moritz
Through June 8 at Annex Theater
A baby has already been thrown off a cliff, and the play has hardly begun. This is the Annex Theater's production of Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, and as can be expected with a play adapted from a Red China propagandist opera, the characterization is pretty straightforward. The bad guys -anti-communist bandits terrorizing a town at the foot of their stronghold mountain-are clearly very bad. Not only do they throw a baby off a cliff, they kill that baby's father (played by Sarah Lamar) when he jumps in front of a bullet intended for the mother (Ren Pepitone), who they still kill. None of these are spoilers, by the way: This scene happens during the exposition, not the climax.
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.
Since Moritz maintains the characterization and plot, mood is where he departs from the original production. The triumphant tone of propaganda is replaced by something more dissonant. The music is particularly anti-triumphant. As a product of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, the original opera stood out from traditional works with its Westernized melodic structure, which remained in key and avoided anything harsh sounding. The songs scattered into Moritz's adaptation do the opposite: The singers in the play aren't concerned with sounding pretty or being on key, and their notes occasionally clash with the track they sing over. Pao, the budding young Communist played by Ren Pepitone, sings her hopeful lyrics with intentional uncertainty and even fear. In a way, the play feels post-apocalyptic with its nervous singing, distorted electronic music, and rave-warrior costumes. Its nondescript landscape is filled in with geometric props-which are more sculpture than scenery-and snow projected on the walls. The actors use pantomime to flesh out the minimalist scenery, as when they "climb" Tiger Mountain with choreographed marching that resembled an aerobics class (an effect heightened by their '80s-style costumes).
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.