The Bondage of Lao Jiu
"Lao" is a good way to describe the message, and several of the characters, of Kuo Pau Kun's Lao Jiu, which reflects the old mentalities of an old generation that prioritises upholding family honour over following your heart. But no matter how lao this play is, its ideas are not yet outdated, at least not in Asia, where the message of following your dream despite what daddy says is obviously very popular among the young. So even if you have never seen Lao Jiu (meaning ninth born), its message will still be familiar to you. Therein lies the big challenge in producing Lao Jiu: it is crucial to do more than rely on its simple, familiar story.
Our hero, You Wei, the ninth born child and only son in a family of eight daughters, is an academic prodigy but dreams of being a puppeteer. His family desires to have their name honoured, and who else but You Wei has the smarts to pass the prestigious Warhorse Scholar's Examination with flying colours and do the family proud? Will You Wei choose to fulfil his family's desires or to follow his own dream?
Different theatrical interpretations of Lao Jiu over the years prove that framing its story framing it in a different theatrical genre can work: take the success of Lao Jiu: The Musical for instance; and I once heard of Lao Jiu: The Puppet Show, which must have been a fascinating experiment. But this production of Lao Jiu by SMU's Stageit chose to be different merely by adding (according to their advertising) "kung fu and a bit of bondage".
At the point in the play where You Wei was studying for his exam and clearly under pressure, the ensemble tied scarves to You Wei's hands and writhed in a physical manifestation of his mental anguish. Shadowy figures crept out from behind the homely sets and twisted their bodies into painful poses. This looked vaguely striking for a while, but mainly it seemed arbitrary and jarring, at odds with the realistic tone the rest of the play had established.
So much for the bondage. The short kung fu sequence that ensued between master and disciple was similarly jarring. I recall seeing the Master Puppeteer springing to life in a show of advanced t'ai chi like those old men at community centres on Sunday mornings. I wracked my brains trying to fathom any justification for this display of martial arts, but I suspect there wasn't one. All I can say it that it did not last long enough to make much sense, and while it lasted, it was not all that enjoyable.
When I said any production of Lao Jiu should try to add something new, I didn't mean it should be turned into an action movie. Instead, director Louis Lin might have spent more time working out how to smooth out some of the kinks in Kuo's script. Not enough is known, for instance, about Mr and Mrs Chng. And the Master Puppeteer's motivations and character are more than just mysterious: you have next to no idea who he is and what he wants. And why does the Warhorse do what she does - prey on innocent scholars? Come to think of it, is none of You Wei's eight sisters (of whom we know only age, occupation and their ability to cook pig's brain soup for their little brother) envious of him?
Besides, I could never agree with the common acknowledgement that You Wei was the cleverest in the family. Having different family members reiterate the belief does not make it convincing. For someone as smart as he is supposed to be, he does not have any lines to prove it. His character is often portrayed as a weak, indecisive boy who mumbles a few lines, then erupts into fits of frustration, then sulks, playing with puppets. And what is with his obsession with puppets? There are a lot blanks in the script of Lao Jiu that a director needs to fill in. Unfortunately, they were left empty in this production.
It was up to the actors to save the day and the play, and the cast was clearly dedicated. There was no lack of energy onstage, jokes were delivered with good comic timing, and everyone was clear in their speech (maybe a little too clear because the obvious emphasis on the Hokkien vulgarities seemed like an attempt to start a "Speak Good Hokkien" campaign).
Jeremy Wang, playing Mr Chng, was a perfect replica of my dad in his slightly domineering, head-of-the-household role. It was amusing and affecting to see the hope on his face in the hospital waiting room vanish upon hearing yet again "It's a girl". Wang's stiff physicality showed us an old world ah beng who, try as he might, could not come to terms with the ways of the present and could not endorse the sacrifice of family for self. Sadly, his tongue, when it came to the Hokkien words, stiff in the wrong way.
Diana Chong balanced out the overwhelming testosterone Wang was exuding with her constant acquiescence as Mother. Her very presence onstage seemed also in his shadow, physically and mentally. She might have gone too far though, because I fail to remember her as anything else but a wisp of a shadow behind the other characters onstage.
The acting was not really about originality, though - there was the authoritative father and the submissive mother, and the eight sisters tended to clump together in a characterless mass of obedient voices. This could serve well to make a statement about the rigidity of people in the time of the play, but could just as easily betray a lack of character in the actors' portrayals.
Still, if this version of Lao Jiu needed some more interpretation to make it feel less old, at least there was energy and dedication and - kung fu bondage aside - heart in this production.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /