Streamed by National Theater & Concert Hall, Taipei
November 20, 2021
In 2009, Taiwan’s GuoGuang Opera Company (國光劇團) presented Fox Tales (狐仙), which took inspiration from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, a classic collection of over 160 short Chinese ghost stories where humans and spirits frequently cross the boundary between their worlds, and the Japanese manga Urameshiya. The modern take on the Chinese opera that came with interconnected plots all set in a fantasy world played to much acclaim. Twelve years on, the company has revisited the tale in a super production by director Tai Chun-fang (戴君芳) and playwright Chao Hsueh-chun (趙雪君) that fuses the traditional art with vivid digital multimedia design by Wang Yu-sheng (王奕盛) that brings the imaginary world to spectacular life.
Fox Tales is a shape-shifting, gender fluid tale of incompatible love between a fox and a human in a mountain forest, with an epidemic along the way to boot. It couldn’t be more topical. At the heart of the epic-length show are themes of reincarnation, love and redemption; the focus very much on the relationships between the characters, their gender roles, and states of mind.
It is perhaps a less refined art form than that of classic Peking Opera company. Movement is less stylised and costumes less luxurious but all the usual ingredients of singing, reciting, acting, acrobatics and dancing are there, just presented with more a sort of neo-Peking opera aesthetic. The two and a half hours positively zipped by.
The narrative is a complex story of forbidden love and yearning woven into a seasons and time. The fox of the title is ageless through time and can appear in any gender, although she first appears as a beautiful young woman, San-Niang, who falls in love with a man, who turns out to be a reincarnated fox; and later as a man loved by a woman.
As it flips between reality and fantasy, making us wonder which is which, the two leads carry the story with ease. Sheng Chien (盛鑑), plays the male incarnation of the fox, with Huang Yu-lin (黃宇琳), also noted for her work in modern theatre, as the female counterpart. Masculine and feminine, it’s like looking in a mirror and seeing a different reflection come back; a sort of yin and yang.
Questions are raised and we witness their inner emotional turmoil as spirits become human and vice-versa, humans fall in love with spirits, and characters reappear from previous lives. There are also demons and an epidemic in the village for which the fox spirit is blamed.
Despite the characters’ suffering and travails at the hands of fate, against which all so often seem helpless, the powerful bonds of family and friendship are a constant, triumphing even over dreams that it seems will remain unfulfilled.
Holographic Projection, and motion and volumetric capture are all used to superb effect. They allow the creation of a misty, mysterious landscapes, and the figure of the fox to flash through the trees. They are also used to produce looming huge figures and allow the action to switch easily to a townscape. The bamboo forest regular set that seems to reflect images deep in the fox’s consciousness, is most effective too. Props, costumes and lighting are also excellent throughout. Fox Tales really is a feast for the eyes.
Acrobats, jugglers and fire eaters are to the fore at a Lantern festival scene, in which the splendid green-faced toad spirit, weasel spirits and the stone spirit sing and dance as the main characters marvel at the beauty of the lanterns. Set against a rising moon with snowflakes falling, the final scene in which matters are resolved has a gorgeous quiet beauty.
Like ballet, contemporary dance and all art forms, while respecting tradition, Chinese opera can only benefit from today’s artists presenting new stories from modern, contemporary perspectives. Fox Tales succeeds on all counts.