UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII
Annie Lokomaka'i Lipscomb stars as Mu Guiying, with Nicole Tessier as her son, Yang Wenguang, who fights for a chance to go to war with the women of the Yang family.
UH upholds lavish tradition with Chinese opera
The University of Hawaii's lavish productions of East Asian theater are always spectacles. The costumes are designed, and the performance techniques perfected, under the direction of visiting experts, while the use of English dialogue makes the story accessible to local audiences.
"Women Generals of the Yang Family"
Continues at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Kennedy Theatre.
"Women Generals of the Yang Family," a Chinese "jingju" opera, maintains the theater program's high standards in every respect. Colorful costumes and the highly stylized speech and movement of the performances make "Women Generals" thoroughly entertaining.
The well-worn cliché "Lucky you live Hawaii" certainly applies to this welcome opportunity to sample jingju without the expense and hassle of going to China.
First-timers, take note: The show is best appreciated by picking up a free copy of "A Guide to Jingju (Beijing Opera)" at the theater. It contains a wealth of information not included in the playbill -- the significance of the actors' makeup and accessories, and the meaning of various movements and styles of speech.
The booklet (ask for it on the way in) also provides historical background on the three generations of male heroes of the Yang family whose legendary exploits have been a staple of Chinese fiction for a thousand years.
"Women Generals" begins as the last adult male in the Yang family has died fighting the invading Xixia forces, and the lands of the Song Empire appear open to invasion. She, the 100-year-old matriarch of the Yangs, informs the emperor that she and her widowed daughters and granddaughters will lead the remaining imperial forces in battle.
Yang Wenguang, She's 14-year old great-grandson, insists he, too, should be allowed to fight. After he wins a sparring match, he is allowed to join the women in going off to war.
In Act 2 the Yangs and their anonymous male foot soldiers halt the advance of the Xixia forces, then confront the task of assaulting the enemy's impregnable camp.
Purists will note that "Women Generals" was written in 1959, 10 years after Mao established the People's Republic of China, and is therefore a newly created historical play written in a contemporary context.
As in many countries, women were banned from the Chinese stage during previous eras, but director Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak cast this production without regard to gender. Gender-free casting has not always worked well at Kennedy Theatre, but there are no problems here.
Annie Lokomaka'i Lipscomb stands out in Act 1 in the role of Mu Guiying, the widow of Yang Wenguang and mother of his son, Yang Wenguang; Jessica Lee Jacob takes over as Mu Guiying after intermission. The reason for the switch is not mentioned in the playbill, but Jacob maintains Mu Guiying's place at the center of the action as she takes the lead in battle.
Chong Wang (Kou Zhun, Minister of the Right) and Kemuel DeMoville (Wang Hui, Minister of the Left) add distinct characterization to the scene in which the emperor and Matriarch She weigh the relative costs of fighting the Xixia and negotiating with them.
Nicole Tessier (Yang Wenguang) has some of the best action scenes. Nicholas Logue (Wang Wen) is a powerful presence as the resourceful leader of the Xixia. Logue has a strong second in Kelcie Noelani Kim Chan Awa (Wang Xiang), who brings similar vitality to the role of Wang Wen's son.
The story follows a familiar trajectory as the Yang women solve the riddle of the impregnable Xixia camp and the story concludes with a series of colorful stylized battles and dramatic duels.
Frederick Lau and Daniel Tschudl share credit as directors of the orchestra that completes this must-see production.