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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Appearance And Reality Face Off In Mr. Shi And His Lover

By John Terauds on November 16, 2017

Jordan Cheng and Derek Kwan (Photo by Erik Kuong)
Jordan Cheng and Derek Kwan (Photo by Erik Kuong)

Mr. Shi and His Lover. By Wong Teng Chi and Njo Kong Kie. Directed by Tam Chi Chun. Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. To Dec. 17. www.tarragontheatre.com

Anyone who has dated has wondered at some point about the nature of appearance versus reality in the dynamic between two people who are courting each other. Playwright Wong Teng Chi and composer Njo Kong Kie have plumbed this dynamic in a compelling way in Mr. Shi and His Lover, which opened at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace on Wednesday night.

Whether you choose to label the play as musical theatre or opera, it is a serious drama, telling the M. Butterfly story made famous by playwright David Henry Hwang from the point of view of Shi Shei Pu, the Beijing Opera performer and Chinese spy who fooled a French diplomat into thinking he was a woman for more than 20 years.

Jordan Cheng in Mr. Shi and His Lover (Photo: Etang Chen)
Jordan Cheng in Mr. Shi and His Lover (Photo: Etang Chen)

Or perhaps Shi did not fool Bernard Bouriscot. Maybe the French diplomat was more than happy to go along with the illusion.

Wong and Njo make no attempt to provide us with clear answers. Instead, they lead us on an intense, arresting 75-minute journey into the hearts and minds of the two protagonists, excellently sung and portrayed by Jordan Cheng (Shi) and Derek Kwan (Bouriscot).

The opera is a sort of dance between these two men as they alternately establish and erase boundaries. It’s a dance beautifully animated by Njo’s music — which he brings to life with piano and percussion with the able help of Yukie Lai on marimba and percussion.

The staging is minimal, and director Tam Chi Chun is sparing in movement and theatrics. The characters speak (and sing) for themselves, not without humour, allowing those of us in the audience to see facets of their private thoughts they have not dared to share with each other.

It’s a tidy, 75-minute journey that does everything right: moving and entertaining its audience in equal measure.

The play was first performed in Toronto during the 2016 SummerWorks festival. Now it is back on a bigger stage with the same two actors, who are compelling and confident in their roles. The issues of gender identity and sexual exploitation are at the forefront of our social debate these days, making this production all the more relevant at this time.

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John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at 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.
John Terauds
John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at 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.
John Terauds
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