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SCRUTINY | Thoughtful, Mesmerising Mr Shi Breaks Down Fence Between Music Theatre And Opera

By John Terauds on August 6, 2016

Mr Shi and His Lover (Photo: Courtesy Summerworks)
Mr Shi and His Lover (Photo: Courtesy Summerworks)

Summerworks: Mr Shi and His Lover at The Theatre Centre Mainspace. Runs through August 13. For tickets see summerworks.ca or call 416 320 5779.

Toronto’s Summerworks theatre festival has an honourable history of including musical theatre and opera in its programming. This year, its first-ever work presented in Mandarin also happens to be a powerful 75 minutes of opera, even if the play, Mr Shi and His Lover, is not being billed as an opera.

Conceived by a pan-national group with Toronto performer and composer Kong Kie Njo at its centre, Mr Shi and His Lover is a many-layered meditation on the nature of love, desire, deception, acceptance and disappointment. It is being presented at the Theatre Centre until the afternoon of Aug. 13 (in rotation with other Summerworks shows).

The work is based on the story of a French diplomat who fell in love with a Chinese man he thought to be a woman – a story made famous by playwright David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. Where Hwang’s point of view is centred around the Frenchman, this story is told mainly from the point of view of the cross-dressing lover.

Set on a nearly bare, darkened stage, we are confronted by what happened through the other person’s eyes, in reminiscence and in dialogue. The result is a mesmerising, slow dance with what it means to wish for more than whatever crumbs fate has decided to toss our way

Mr Shi and His Lover (Photo: John Terauds)
Mr Shi and His Lover cast (Photo: John Terauds)

Many elements come together to make this show special. The first is Macau-born, UK-trained actor Jordan Cheng, who is nothing short of captivating as Mr Shi. In a provocative twist on the meaning of nation and belonging, the Frenchman is portrayed by Torontonian Derek Kwan, who is perfectly apposite as the poker-faced diplomat.

Njo’s score is a brilliant mix of atmosphere and muscle. Performed by the composer at the piano and Carol Xuanyu Wang at the xylophone (with both providing extra percussion as necessary), the score seamlessly blends Peking Opera, classic Chinese folk and pop songs as well as minimal-sounding western art music. In the borrowed music, Njo has replaced the original lyrics with lines from the play, written by Teng Chi Wong.

The music enhances, underlines, provokes and propels in equal measure. In one scene, where the music stops, its very absence doubles up the intensity of what we experience.

Chi Chun Tam directs with a minimum of gesture causing maximum effect. The same holds for Trevor Schwellnus’s lighting. There isn’t an extraneous gesture anywhere in this production.

The 75 minutes flew by at the opening performance on Friday night and left much to consider after leaving the theatre.

Mr Shi and His Lover is worth experiencing, whether you normally sit on the musical theatre or opera side of the artistic fence. It makes a strong case for tearing down such fences altogether.

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John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

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