We're far too close to life to see it accurately, aren't we? With noses pressed up against our problems and delights, we need our perceptive artists — such as Chinese playwright Gao Xingjian — to remind us of what's really going on. Like in his vision quest of a play, The Other Shore, which is getting an imaginative and definitive production by Brown University's Sock & Buskin Theatre (through April 12).
We are taken on a journey to the "other shore" of Buddhist metaphor and beyond — your basic search for the meaning of life. Our proxy is Man, played by Chris Smothers, Kai Huang, and Jing Xu, sequentially sharing the same hat, reminding us that we are many different people in the course of our lives. He encounters such stepping stone instructional figures as his Mother (Weiyue Helen Feng) and Father (Matt Bauman); a Zen Master (Sam Yambrovich); and a Mad Woman (Caroline Calkins). Fortunately for us, and for theatrical credibility, Xingjian doesn't pretend to come up with a life solution (uh, isn't that called death?), but rather keeps the Man questioning and questioning.
This is a play that could wander all over the map, but director Kym Moore knows how to use a compass. Even if we don't know where it's heading all the time, we know where we are as she keeps things clear. For example, her framing device is to have a lengthy pre-show in which the 13 actors just hang out, sometimes doing acting exercises, sometimes just chatting; correspondingly, at the end they revert to just being themselves, casually conversing as they drift off and away. In other words, this play is just another way of playing and acting, in the larger sense, we do over the course of our lives.
Oh, it's not as dry as all that. The production has lots of juice, plenty of entertaining moments and interesting images. It begins with them playing with long strips of cloth, learning that any tool can be used to bind people together in different ways or to hold them apart. At the opening, they are mute creatures who have to be taught to speak. Their profit from it, as Caliban said, is to learn to curse — and to discover various ways to blame their benefactor/instructor (Jenna Horton) for their newfound communication conflicts.
As in any good staging, plenty is conveyed visually. One example I particularly liked was having the Man (Smothers) walk a stretch of rubber bungee cord (don't worry, it's just a few feet off the ground) as a brief reminder of how casually precarious our everyday rambles are. What made the action marvelous was that a variation was reprised as the play's closing image: this time he is reclining, using it as a hammock with one foot on the floor, his situation fraught even in sleep. Marvelous.
Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't think that a Western playwright coming up with this very work would be able to get it into a major theater or even earn it much critical acceptance. Undergraduate creative writing majors are still retreading the 15th-century Everyman onstage and countless Bildungsromans of extended adolescence. It's not that we're more sophisticated in the West, just that we very much want to be.
Although multi-mode writer Xingjian moved to Paris in his college years, the output of this 2000 Nobel laureate for literature has always had its collective heart in mainland China. Because of political repression and Thought Police apprehension, the quietly urgent seeking of The Other Shore should remain appreciated there for the foreseeable future. In 1986, when the then-46-year-old Xingjian completed the play, its scheduled Beijing production was canceled by the government, though it eventually was staged in Taiwan and Hong Kong. This was three years before Tiananmen Square, and the government frowned upon even such vague casting-about for personal answers.
It's not that we no longer have need for such existential questing, though. I may be jaded, but many may find the journey of The Other Shore perfectly invigorating, especially in this energetic production. In not having us arrive at Answer Land, this play keeps us firmly planted in a fascinating and far more honest place — the here and now.