Solo: Taiwan (Theater Review)
By Quenntis Ashby
Date of Show: 5/7/2011 Saturday at 19:30
Venue: Open Theater in Taichung
Who and what:
Josh Myers as Harold in “Arrivals and Departures”
Katie Partlow as KT in “Why國人(guó rén)”
Where: The Open Theater in Taichung
Josh Myers invited me to attend a very unique theater event in May of this year. What made this specific event so special you may well ask. Well, it was the first time I’d heard of an original theater production in English being performed in Taiwan, specifically in Taichung. This was not a musical or a children’s show. The show wasn’t imported from overseas either, it was conceived and produced from within Taiwan itself. Big deal you may say. It is a big deal. I believe one of the best ways forward in creating cultural handshakes and language bridges between Asia and the West (between Chinese and English specifically in Taiwan) is through live theater that really engages audiences. This was a theater experience for the Taiwanese people, the Foreigners, and the expats living in Taiwan. It was a ‘Taiwan, touch Your Heart’ moment for me, and for the large number of people who attended the event.
The short season of Solo Taiwan lasted for only four performances, and I truly believe it would have been able to go on for an entire month at least, if Elementary Schools and High Schools were able to get involved. From my own experience in Theater For Young Audiences, Solo Taiwan would have made a big impact on their understanding of what it’s like to be a Foreigner living and working and traveling and negotiating an identity in Taiwan.
What follows is my Review of both Josh and Katie’s acting performances as well as notes comparing each production.
Josh Myers as Harold in “Arrivals and Departures”
This is the story of Harold, a Pavarotti lover who looks a lot like the object of his obsession. He is such a big fan of the Opera Singer that he travels all the way from South Africa to Taichung to see the great man perform live. There are many obstacles in his way, and the solo performance tracks his interesting journey from a nobody to a somebody, even if only for one night.
Harold is a complex character to portray on stage, in that he has to undergo significant changes during his journey into, through, and back out of Taiwan. Physically, Josh is very much up to the task of playing Pavarotti, right down to the ‘beard’. He also charts very well the emotional terrain Harold has to traverse in his journey out of innocence and naiveté into independence and self-reliance. Harold starts off dependent on his phone, asking people for help in his ignorance and expressing childlike wonder at the strange world of Taiwan, the first place he’s ever visited abroad. He garners a great deal of sympathy from the audience at the start because he represents himself at a very vulnerable point; unable to get what he wants. The ensuing journey to see Pavarotti at all costs has us rooting for him every step of the way. What makes the performance work so well is that Josh doesn’t portray multiple characters. All his conversations are one-sided. He answers questions and he speaks to the people he meets. He is always Harold, even when trying to pretend to be Pavarotti.
The point of view of Harold never changes. This strengthens the relationship between audience and the consistent performer. What also works very well is that Josh doesn’t try to be funny. He plays everything that happens to him in the piece with sincerity and 100% authenticity. There are definitely funny moments in the monologue, especially when his cassette tape gets stuck and mangled during his Pavarotti lip sync attempt. But these moments are treated seriously and not over the top for laughs. I found the content of the piece quite informative, learning something interesting about the tragically romantic Turandot. Harold knows all the operas by heart and quotes from them throughout.
The production itself used very minimal props; some blocks, a mannequin, a suitcase, an old tape deck, and a phone. The audience has to imagine where Harold is purely from his actions and his words, or from the sounds and music we hear through the speakers. Sound used to create an environment was most creatively deployed during a funny fireworks and temple parade scene where Harold stares into the audience in complete bewilderment – capturing the essence of the clash of cultures during a first contact phase.
There was a touch of the absurd as well in the use of a mannequin to represent Harold’s love interest, which gets disassembled and packed into a suitcase in their attempt to flee ‘her’ gangster boss father. A lot of stage space was used from Stage Right to Stage Left to create a linear journey with definite start and end points. Harold exits and enters – allowing the space to be reset and to ‘breathe’.
I imagined his love interest (with the blue feather boa wrapped around her neck like an opera diva) to be symbolic of the Blue Fairy as shown in the popular 2001 Hollywood movie, “Artificial Intelligence”. In the movie the Blue Fairy is a dream apparition that is sought after by David, the main character (representative of Pinocchio, which the film story is based on). He finds the Blue Fairy only to discover she was never real to begin with. His journey to become a ‘real boy’ is achieved in the end.
Harold’s story echoes that journey, too. He becomes a ‘real man’ in the end, letting go of his first love and growing up in the process. His failure to see Pavarotti is balanced by his success at impersonating the man and escaping with his life. His loss of his first love is balanced by his newfound independence. “Arrivals and Departures” was a truly satisfying theater experience.
Katie Partlow as KT in “Why國人(guó rén)”
Katie is described by Josh as a “consummate performer” and that she is. She is completely at home on the stage and never for a second lets her concentration drop. Her use of the stage is based on a circular route – traveling in circles on the stage through each ‘scene’ which is set up with minimal props. This is an important similarity between Katie and Josh’s pieces. Minimal props means that the performance is easily adapted to different theater spaces and therefore mobile for touring (which is what I think Josh and Katie should actually do in the future).
Katie creates a semi-autobiographical solo show about her experiences in Taiwan as a foreigner. In Chinese the word ‘foreigner’ is pronounced as ‘why guó rén’ – the title of her piece. At the start, ‘KT’ (her onstage character name) shows us her emotional attachment to her family and her memories and the place she calls home (which we all share of course). She is 100% American at this point. On arriving in Taiwan, a mechanical voice tells her to get on a scale to measure how ‘Foreign’ and how ‘Taiwanese’ she is or has become. Throughout “Why國人(guó rén)” as she travels her circles she becomes more Taiwanese and less American until she starts questioning why they are bothering to measure these qualities at all. This provides the impetus for a very funny section where she has to prove that she is a Foreigner in a F.A.T. (Foreigner Authentication Test) because her Chinese has become so good. She becomes the KTV queen and fully embraces the Taiwan culture, food, language and lifestyle. She clearly shows how she triumphs over the challenges of adapting to a completely alien environment by singing and dancing like a pro in a KTV scene, by reading out her Teacher’s Day scroll in a Classroom scene, and by ordering and eating food at a Chinese restaurant in Chinese.
A particularly emotionally devastating scene happens when she is kicked out of her host family’s house, out of her new home she has grown to love so much. Because of SARS in Taiwan (2003), she is rejected by her new family, cast out into the street with nowhere to go. She is caught between a now distant American family home and the now off limits Taiwan home and Taiwan family she has become such a big part of. KT is sincerely played with incredible emotional depth and complexity – which makes her performance all the more remarkable. To play such a range of emotions alone on stage is no easy task in a solo show. The mechanical voice of instructions and the projected images only add humor and also seriousness at times to a very fulfilling theater experience.
The theme of Identity is strong throughout. The last image of KT physically walking along the many strands (or ribbons) that make up her memories (American and Taiwan memories both), of her walking away from the audience into her projected (and diminishing) silhouette is an extremely powerful philosophical comment on the Private made Public, and the Public then made Private and Personal again. The audience is left with a lot to think about, specifically their own identities and how to negotiate an identity in an increasingly globally connected world where people live in more than one country and call both (or more) their home.
What I got from KT were two deep truths: 1. Home is wherever you are. 2. The only person you should be is yourself – you are 100% you!
Comparisons and Conclusions.
Both Josh and Katie presented a Foreigner’s first experiences in Taiwan – Josh’s was more fictional and Katie’s was more biographical in content. Both used humor and pathos to show us how they coped and eventually succeeded in living in Taiwan (as 100% yourself) or leaving Taiwan (for safer heartbroken shores). Both showed us their love of Taiwan (for Josh a specific new love interest and for Katie a love of culture, language, and identity). Both were in English (Josh more so than Katie). Both went beyond the ‘usual’ Foreigner in Taiwan experience. Both entertained on visceral, emotional, and intellectual levels – making us laugh, cry and think (which is a magical mixture). Both created a soundscape to help with the action on stage: for Josh a passing temple parade and a variety of other sound effects, including an interesting remix of Pavarotti dancing like the ‘Zohan’; for Katie a mechanical voice of instruction to fight against for her ‘authentic’ identity, despite embarrassing medical examinations and ridiculous multiple choice questions in a F.A.T. test. Both used minimal props. Both pieces were well-thought out, well-scripted and well-rehearsed. Well worth the money and the time.
Bravo to both for an excellent night out at the theater! I can’t wait to see more from both of these highly talented performers.