If you are in Taiwan + have the chance to see this in Taipei or Tainan before it closes, GO!
Unfortunately I cannot give you much information about the National Theater’s Experimental Theater as a venue. (Yet.) I haven’t been able to find much English information out there other than the fact that it exists. It is part of the National Chiang Kai Shek Cultural Center (國立中正文化中心), on the third floor of the National Theater building.
As a space, the Experimental Theater is a black box theatre with the audience in risers on one side. The lights above the stage are over a false ceiling of wire mesh. It is quite a large space + clearly a high-profile venue.
For this production, the stage platform was raked + almost semi-circular in shape. A smaller semi circle was cut out stage right, creating a sub-level where tire hubs were piled (the kitchen scenes would take place here). The stage’s surface was tiled with sheet metal. The rest of the set consisted of two connectable car seats + a steering wheel, all on wheels. Starting downstage left + spaced around the platform’s edge were four highway lamps + a wall of tall grass that got smaller/shorter as they followed the platform’s curve towards the upstage right corner, creating a nice perspective.
It is hard for me to know where to begin in my discussion of this production since it was entirely in Chinese (aside from the words “Johnny Walker,” “Whiskey,” “Hallelujah,” and several others). I honestly only understood actual language when the line was, “I know,” or “I don’t know.” I also cannot comment on how true to Paula Vogel’s script this adaptaion/translation by 吳瑾蓉, Wu Jinrong, is. However, even days later as I write my thoughts I am having a strong visceral, emotional reaction to what I saw.
We were brought into the play immediately by loud sounds of cars, almost like a NASCAR race. We meet the 3 person ensemble, which immediately brings us into the world of the play by announcing the title of the part we are about to see + making bird sounds + other nature sounds. Then, we meet Li’l Bit + Uncle Peck during a driving lesson in the country.
The play is a memory play, told by Li’l Bit as an adult. It is split into parts that are not necessarily linear. Between each part, music played + the cast members would dance while they rearranged the set for the scene to come. Sometimes the music was bossa nova, sometimes Gogol Bordelo-like polka, other times salsa.
I mentioned in my thoughts on Tea@Style that one of my initial observations of a popular theatrical convention in Asia is that character choices often seem influenced by clowning techniques. Well, there was a ton of clowning work happening within the 3 person ensemble of this piece! The ensembles’ characters were often more like larger-than-life caricatures than based in theatrical realism. But this totally worked. + at times when this did not serve the play (like during the Aunt’s confession, which was stunning), all caricature was stripped away. There was a refreshing consistency to the work + every one of the several characters that each ensemble member played was distinct.
As someone who has performed in one of Paula Vogel’s pieces (Desdemona in “Desdemona”), seen a few + read many, her work often requires the actors to travel away from the comfortable world of theatrical realism + into more stylized forms of theatre. No mater how big or small the action was, the actors’ intentions were clear + physical work masterfully specific. The energy was high throughout. Every actor on stage truly did fantastic work.
Last spring, I saw Second Stage‘s production of “How I Learned to Drive.” There, I understood every word but was so thrown by Elizabeth Reaser‘s uber sexual physicality (which was, in my opinion, completely inappropriate) that it almost ruined the experience for me. Here, too, the work by the chorus was very strong + Norbert Leo Butz‘ Uncle Peck was beautiful… for lack of a more appropriate word.
It is hard for me to say that anyone was a standout in this production, because the entire cast was so strong. 李劭婕, Li Shao Jie, who played Li’l Bit was spot on. Her age work, including the physicality it required, was always appropriate + her final moments in the car (both with Uncle Peck + then alone) were shattering. The physical work done by 林子恆, Linzi Heng, who played Uncle Peck, was expertly specific + often painfully hard to watch (in the best way). Their chemistry was beautifully awkward + the love story was clear. (Only Paula Vogel could write a sexual predator that breaks your heart.)
The mother/aunt track was played by 黃怡琳, Huang Yilin, who was hilarious, made delightful physical choices throughout + almost killed me with her Aunt’s confession moment. The grandfather track was played by 呂名堯, Lu Ming Yao, whose physical mastery + comic timing were just a joy to watch. The grandmother track was played by 林曉函, Lin Xiao Han, who was also physically specific + charming. As the voice of Li’l Bit during the last driving lesson revealed in the play, she was beyond wonderful. (I’m running out of adjectives here…Had you noticed?)
The direction by 廖若涵, Liao Ruohan, was tight + clear. Some of the ensemble’s physical bits seemed superfluous, however these moments were few and far between. It is true that I had knowledge of what the play was about before I saw this production. However, the characters’ actions + intentions were so specific that I would have been able to follow what was going on no matter what. This is definitely a testament to the strength of Liao’s direction. (*Note: the reason I have not linked the actors’ names, etc. is that I could not find a way to directly link their bios to this page. Please see the Tainaner’s Ensemble page for more information about the people involved with this production.)
Again, I am limited as to what I can say about this production. I can only confidently report on the physical aspects of what I saw + the work being done. I cannot comment on the language, or say with certainty that the script matched Paula’s word for word. However, the feeling that I left with–of being completely shattered–is, I think, what is intended for any production of “How I Learned To Drive.”
This is what theatre should do. Make the audience feel. The fact that the words + thoughts spoke to me almost more strongly in Chinese than in English is a testament to both the strength of Paula Vogel’s expression of painfully complicated ideas + situations, + the beautiful work that everyone involved with the Tainaner’s Ensemble put into this piece.
Go see it, Taiwaners! OK? Great.
I’ll end this one with my favorite Patty Griffin song. To me, she is also one of the greatest female storytellers of our time. Also, her music is great for driving. (You can take or leave the slideshow…)