In 1986 a French diplomat was sentenced to six years in prison for spying for China. It began with an affair with a Chinese opera singer who the diplomat claimed to believe to be a woman. Mr. Shi and his Lover is a piece exploring the relationship and the inner thoughts of the two characters. It was developed by Macau Experimental Theatre between 2013 and 2015 and got its North American premier in Toronto last night as part of SummerWorks.
It’s a very interesting piece. It’s mostly in a kind of eclectic international music theatre vein but with elements of traditional Beijing opera included. It’s never quite clear when Mr. Shi, played brilliantly by Jordan Cheng, is in or out of character. That perhaps is the point. Mr. Shi is a traditional opera singer; a master of pretence and particularly of playing female characters in a stylized way. His affair with his lover is a performance. At the same time, the lover (Derek Kwan) is a diplomat; a different kind of performance artist. The performative nature of diplomacy is emphasised here by the lover breaking at times from Mandarin into French or English. So where does reality lie? If it does.
All of this is staged quite simply by Tam Chi Chun with the two characters and a few props. That might indeed be the one weakness of the piece because it forces a lot of “tell” where “show” might have been more concise and more effective but it does have the advantage of simplicity and elegance. It’s all backed by a score by Njo Kong Kie which combines elements of musical theatre and pop with Beijing opera and some witty allusions to the western opera stage. It’s perhaps a bit understated in places but that’s true of the piece as a whole and part of its charm. Maybe the fact that it’s scored quite sparely for piano and percussion contributes to that effect.
The two actor/singers are really very good. Cheng’s ability to transition smoothly and utterly ambiguously between story teller, character in the story and the kind of meta character of his/her operatic self is uncanny. It’s not just vocal style that switches. It’s a whole vocabulary of movement that flips too. Kwan is a more than adequate foil as the Frenchman rather lost in his recollection of and confusion about what happened and why.
I’ve seen a few Chinese/western fusion pieces before. I’m thinking of, for example, The Legend of Da Ji. After all, Toronto, in a sense, is their natural home. It’s potentially a heady mix and I think Mr. Shi and his Lover does a very interesting job of exploring aspects of it.
Mr. Shi and his Lover plays at the Theatre Centre Mainspace, 1115 Queen Street West. There are six further performances between tonight and next Saturday. Check summerworks.ca for times and ticket information.