A highlight of the Kennedy Center’s monthlong festival of arts from China is the first visit to the U.S. of the Beijing People’s Art Theater to perform its signature play, “Teahouse.” Written in 1957, work offers a compelling panorama of Chinese culture and politics during a tumultuous 50-year period, as seen from the perspective of a Beijing teahouse.
Teahouses occupied a central role in Chinese society and here provide an apt vantage point for a blunt treatise on hardball politics and hardscrabble existences — so blunt, in fact, that author Lao She’s play was banned during the Cultural Revolution. Scribe himself died during the revolution.
One teahouse is teeming with activity as the play opens in 1898, the year of the coup d’etat by the Qing dynasty and the movement toward modernization. It was a time when the poverty-stricken masses often were forced to sell off their children, and even well-heeled urbanites worked every angle to ensure their status. The rich tableau offers a thin but intriguing narrative as customers engage in relaxation, commerce and acts of desperation.
Act two takes place in 1918, the seventh year of the Republic of China, a tumultuous period of civil war. Corrupt police are on the prowl amid exploding bombs, and the weary teahouse owner must adjust to the difficult times.
Act three is set in 1947, during another oppressive era, against the advancing specter of Communism. Coping with it all becomes too much for the now-aged proprietor to bear.
“Teahouse” is all about humanity and the depiction of a complex culture, with more than 60 characters portrayed. Staged with compassion by Lin Zhaohua, one of China’s most popular directors, work is presented in the troupe’s distinctive style, which pundits have labeled “poetic realism.”
Each scene is introduced by a jovial actor speaking in rhyme and banging out his cadence on an instrument. Its performance in the Eisenhower Theater includes surtitles projected high enough above the action that earnest viewing becomes an aerobic exercise.
The play also puts a welcome theatrical cap on the largest festival ever mounted of Chinese arts, within or outside of China. It was a potpourri of spectacular acts and lavish costumes presented by the Peking Opera, the China Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble and many others, including the China National Acrobatic Troupe’s daredevil “Pagoda of Bowls and the Charm of Piling-Up.”
Many of the acts will tour the U.S., including “Teahouse,” which stops Saturday-Sunday at UC Berkeley.