Last night I saw 《動物園》, the Godot Theatre Company‘s production of Edward Albee‘s At Home At the Zoo. The performance was at Metropolitan Hall at Taipei Cultural Center. Like Tainaner Ensemble’s production of How I Learned To Drive (《行車記錄》), this production was also translated to Chinese from English. Unlike 《行車記錄》, 《動物園》 did not thrill.
A little background about the play: At Home At the Zoo is a two-act play that combines The Zoo Story, Albee’s classic 1958 one-act, + Homelife, his 2003 prequel. The play begins with Homelife, in which we have a glimpse of Paul’s life at home with his wife, Ann. The act ends with Paul leaving to read in Central Park. Then we have The Zoo Story: Jerry finds Paul reading on a park bench + the rest is history. Read it if you haven’t. (Seriously.) No spoilers here.
Many of my performing cronies would agree that spending any money (let alone time) to see a bad piece of live performance can be infuriating. Especially when the production has a lot of money behind it. When the acting or direction of such a piece is off-base, it becomes almost offensive. We leave shaking our heads, sure that we know at least several actors + directors who could have done the job better.
This often happens in the U.S. because the artists who get the big jobs are Names that will boost ticket sales, regardless of whether they have stage training, or are right for the part. I do not not know whether this is common practice in Taiwan, or relevant to this production. Shih-Chieh King, Peter, + Pao-Ming Ku, Jerry, are described as, “Two revered ‘National Treasure’ theatrical actors,” on the Taipei Cultural Center‘s English language webpage for At Home At the Zoo. So, I imagine it is.
The Metropolitan Hall at the Taipei Cultural Center is about the size of a standard Broadway house, very nice + modern. The set consisted of several levels with ramps, white screens that would be projected onto, several bench-like platforms (one center stage) + sections of white jungle-gym bar structures, which actors climbed throughout the show.
The set design was very smart–nothing needed to be moved on- or off-stage between act one + act two. Projected images took care of dressing the stage as Peter + Ann’s apartment or Central Park, respectively. However, from my seat in the third mezzanine, many of the projections were washed out + sometimes blurry. I am not sure if that was based on the angle from which I viewed the play, or if this was a problem for the entire audience. I was also able to hear a garbage collection truck’s Beethoven tune (stay tuned for my post about the wacky garbage collection system!!) at several intervals during the show, which surprised me. I would have thought that this venue would have had a better system in place to block outside noise.
The production started with a projected promotional commercial about the Godot Theatre Company’s 25th Season (I think). So, a movie-theatre style preview before the show started.
Once the action started, it was just indication all over the place. I’ll put it this way, if an actor is blocked to go to a bookcase to look for a book in a play that is not overtly stylized, I want the actor to go to the bookcase + look for the book. I don’t want to see the actor showing me that he or she is working really hard to look for something! Unfortunately, so much of the action in the play was like this that the story was hard to follow. Gwen Yao, Ann, was by far the biggest culprit.
While speaking to a few friends (Taiwanese + foreigner) after the show, they made the point that a lot of mainstream Taiwanese + Chinese acting is quite melodramatic + indicative. (Something that I had noticed in several Chinese language movies + TV shows, but had not seen onstage in such a detrimental way.)
I am a big fan of switching up styles in a play + believe that sometimes melodrama can totally work in a piece, whether it is specifically written in or not. Much of Albee’s writing is quite stylized + his scenarios are often based outside of reality as we know it. If the director, Chi-Ming Liang, was trying to make a melodrama out of Homelife, he did not have his actors go far enough. There was no substance or intention behind the actors’ physical lives. I felt like I was watching actors who were uncomfortable with their blocking, rather than professionals on one of the most major stages in Taipei.
Since my school’s library has a ton of English language plays available (YAY!), I was able to read The Zoo Story again before seeing the play. I had never read or seen the first act, Homelife, before last night’s show. I do have a general idea of what was going on in Homelife, but my understanding was that this first act is supposed to shed light on some of Peter’s behavior in The Zoo Story. I found the choices that Gao + King made so distracting that I am still wondering what aspect of their 50-minute conversation was supposed to inform Peter’s actions towards the end of the play. Yes, I understand very little Chinese, however, as I mentioned in my HILTD post, when the action of a play is clear + the intentions of the actors are strong, a play can be followed no matter what language it is in.
I was able to enjoy the second act a bit more because Pao-Ming Ku, Jerry, was actually engaging. His character is written to be larger than life, but there was also always intention behind his action. However, one truly connected actor does not a multi-actor show make. It’s gonna sound rough, but is a testament to how powerfully written The Zoo Story is that I felt anything at all at the end of the play.
This is definitely a production that can be missed. +, sadly, I have little incentive to see any of the other productions Godot will be putting up this year (including Tuesdays with Morrie in June). Borrow At Home At the Zoo from the library or order a copy from the Drama Book Shop + read it instead! It is, after all, a classic of American theatre.
In honor of Jerry’s dog, here’s a THROWback from my favorite OG Dogg (or should I say LI-ON?!!) that will get me back to a better mood after that li’l rant. (Myyyyyy goodness, was he young!)