Veteran comedian returns with period drama

Writer: Li Dan  |  Editor: Zhang Chanwen  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  |  Updated: 2023-03-29

Directed by and starring veteran comedian Chen Peisi, a period drama putting a Kunqu opera troupe at the center of its plotline will return to Shenzhen Poly Theater in June.

The 150-minute show, which premiered in the fall of 2021, is rated at 9.4 points out of 10 on Douban, a Chinese cultural and arts fan website. The play was also chosen in 2021 by Southern Weekly as best “original play of the year” and by Chinese Theater Almanac as “notable play of the year.”

Second of a planned trilogy featuring traditional Chinese operas, this play follows up the success of “The Stage,” a play that primarily discusses the conflict between free artistic expression and intervention from the authorities as manifested in the predicaments faced by a Beijing opera troupe.

Chen Peisi (2nd L) in a scene from “Dream in a Spring Garden.” Photo courtesy of the organizer

Titled “Jing Meng,” or “Dream in a Spring Garden” in English, the current show has a “play within a play” as the climax and solution to conflicts at the end of the performance, borrowed from the famous Kunqu opera “The Peony Pavilion” by Ming Dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616).

Penned by Yu Yue, the play, with around 70 in the cast and crew, also casts the director’s son Chen Dayu in a leading role.

The story begins when Tong Xiaozhang (the senior Chen), head of a renowned Kunqu opera troupe, leads his crew to Pingzhou City, where they can put up a show distant from the warfare between the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Kuomintang armies in the late 1940s. Unfortunately, they find themselves in battlefields again as the war has spread to Pingzhou.

To boost the morale of their soldiers, the CPC army hires Tong’s troupe to give a performance. Happy that they’ve finally secured a paying gig, the Kunqu opera performers, however, are faced with insurmountable difficulty in fulfilling this task: putting on an unheard of show named “The White-haired Girl.” With a lot of efforts and ingenious ideas, the troupe is able to produce a successful show.

A scene from “Dream in a Spring Garden.” 

Learning about the miraculous effects of the show on the armies’ morale, the Kuomintang officials have also come to Tong for a show for their side. Without giving the subject a lot of thoughts, Tong agrees and arranges for another performance of “The White-haired Girl,” which condemns the atrocities of the ruling authorities and the unfairness of the Chinese society during that time.

While watching the show, the senior Kuomintang official suddenly realizes the huge mistake and orders his soldiers to shoot the performers. In despair, the performers drop what they’re singing and scramble to put up a classical scene from “The Peony Pavilion,” which is so beautiful that the soldiers don’t have the heart to pull the trigger.

Apart from the beauty of Kunqu opera, chosen as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage” by UNESCO in 2001, the stage drama also won accolades for its realistic stage set, costumes, sophisticated lighting design and outstanding original music.

Chen is known for his sketch comedy performances that were the highlights of China Central TV’s Spring Festival galas in the 1980s and 1990s.

Time: 8 p.m., June 15-18

Tickets: 280-1,280 yuan

Booking: WeChat account “SZpolytheatre”

Venue: Shenzhen Poly Theater, Nanshan District (深圳保利剧院)

Metro: Line 2 or 11 to Houhai Station (后海站), Exit E