The Other Shore
Single Carrot Theater searches for nirvana in Gao Xingjian's metaphysical play
Published: December 15, 2010
The Other Shore
By Gao Xingjian
Through Jan. 16, 2011 at Single Carrot Theatre.
Don’t be too alarmed when you walk into Single Carrot Theatre’s cozy performance space and feel like you’ve entered some New Age cult. That impression is only partly true. The members of the cast flit about the space singing/chanting as if they’re auditioning for an easy-like-Sunday-morning take on Jesus Christ Superstar. Barefoot and clad in neutral costumes—guys in pants and collarless shirts, women in simple sack dresses—some light the candles that line the room; some fire up the candles in the wagon-wheel-like chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Others mill about singing along to the woman playing a drone-y violin, the man playing an acoustic guitar, the woman playing a hand drum, and the woman sitting off to the side singing in an angelic voice. You take your seat in the single row of chairs that forms a powwow rectangle around the performance space and notice that a narrow platform runs right behind you. Some cast members casually stroll around this plank, sometimes sitting down and continuing the creepily laid-back vibe. When the stage doors are finally closed and the room is illuminated only by candlelight, you’re not sure if you’re about to watch a play or be subjected to group therapy.
A little bit of both, it turns out. Chinese author/playwright Gao Xingjian’s The Other Shore is a slice of theater as a blank slate. Written in 1986 and translated into English in the 1990s, Shore is informed by avant-garde European theater (such as Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, and Jerzy Grotowski), Chinese Buddhism, Xingjian’s own experiences of political expediency in Communist China, and the rather universal experience of the imperfections of language. The Chinese title (Bi’an) refers explicitly to Buddhism and enlightenment, yet the production unfolds almost like an exercise in acting techniques more than it sculpts a narrative throughline with a beginning, middle, and end. It does offer a journey, though, and how Single Carrot navigates it—under the direction of company co-founder J. Buck Jabaily—conspires to produce one of the more powerful and ineffable evenings in local theater right now.
As Jabaily outlines in the production note, some of the parts portrayed by the 12-member cast—Sarah Anne Austin, Nathan A. Cooper, Christine Demuth, Susannah Edwards, Dennis Elkins, Nathan Fulton, Jay Michael Gilman, Maddie Hicks, Giti Jabaily, Katie Rumbaugh, Owen Scott, and Natalie Ware—change with each performance, with performers unaware of their roles until that evening. It’s one variable in a production loaded with them, as so many activities proceed with an improvisational brio. The play itself begins—the experience begins the moment you enter the space—with a man (Elkins) leading everybody in an instructional game with a rope. The rope represents a relationship between people, and that can take many shapes. People can pull in opposite directions, one can rotate around another, one can rotate in place giving the appearance of the other rotating around him, and so on. Throughout, Elkins demonstrates with a partner, and the remainder of the cast members pair up and do likewise.
Nearly the entire play unfolds in successive episodes of instructional call and response, with the ensemble alternately acting as willing students or a conspiring mob. It’s a flow that doesn’t so much illustrate the play’s themes—about the individual and his or her relationship to other people, a collective social order, and the moralities and political ideals that accompany groups of people—as present dramatic experiments in which performers see what they can mine from these situations. Sometimes they’re repeating words in unison—hand, foot, eye, I—as if children learning to speak. Sometimes they’re taking circuitous logic and folding it over even more to isolate and alienate, as when they repeat, as a group, the illogical activity in which they’re engaged: “Yes, no, everybody looks or nobody looks, even if nobody looks or everybody looks, not looking is not the same as not wanting to look, the question is whether we can look and find it.”
That snippet is fairly representational of the play’s dialogue, which exists somewhere between blank verse and aphoristic riddle. And the cast—and on the Saturday evening during opening weekend, especially Cooper, Fulton, Rumbaugh, and whoever the young woman was who provided the entire noise effects/mood music with her voice—gamely meets this black box of a theatrical circus with a confident resolve. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this production of the play connects on some primal level, but it does. It has moments of great intensity, such as when the cast metaphorically kills one of their own with violent stomps and shouts that turn the theater into a reverberating assault. It has moments of dizzying confusion, such as those times when the cast scatters around the theater like excited electrons looking for a stable nucleus. And it has moments of sensory immersion, such as when electric blowers plunge the room into darkness, leaving behind nothing save the smell of smoldering wicks. More than anything, though, Single Carrot’s The Other Shore offers an uncanny dive into a theatrical space where human pursuit gets played out as an abstract folly between the “I” and the “Us,” the “me” and the “them,” before trying to find a mental, spiritual, or even psychological place qua space where that dichotomy might not exist. Xingjian doesn’t get you there, but he does point you in a direction. Whether or not it’s the right one is entirely up to you.
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