Detention celebrates mischief of every variety

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Directed by Tang Shu-wing. A Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio production, presented as part of the Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival. At the Gateway Theatre on Saturday, August 16. No remaining performances

Who knew that being kept after the bell could be this much fun?

Detention, a wordless physical-theatre performance, has packed houses during three separate runs in Hong Kong and at the Edinburgh Fringe, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a virtuosically executed piece that celebrates mischief of every variety.

At the start of the show, two boys sit at desks in a cavernous classroom, diligently writing lines, but the moment the teacher slips out, cracks in their discipline begin to appear. It’s a very short trip from an exasperated sigh and slouch to a frantic air-guitar competition. Add more students, periodic visits from the teacher—who, beneath her businesslike (albeit hot-pink) blazer, sports a unitard, spangles, and a penchant for both tap and belly dancing—and you’ve got a recipe for delicious chaos.

Director Tang Shu-wing has assembled a knockout cast with diverse body types and skills. Chun Tung Cheng is an excellent clown, using facial expressions, little vocalizations, his not-inconsiderable girth, and even the aerodynamic properties of his bowl-cut hair to hilarious effect. Tall, lanky RX Wong Ho Pong, a world-class beatbox artist, dazzles with his sound effects and his dance moves. Winwei Tsai has an acrobat’s compact body; in addition to executing dizzying leaps across the stage, he’s a terrific low-status straight man, grudgingly resigned to his repeated losses at rock-paper-scissors.

As the girl they’re all trying to impress, Man Kwan Chan charms with her wide eyes and her water-sleeve dance. Oggy Hong Man Ho’s teacher is much more concerned about her boyfriend’s phone calls than with keeping order in the classroom, but when she busts loose, she literally climbs the walls.

The wide range of skills on display is matched by a breadth of cultural references: alongside nods to traditional Chinese dance and music are snippets of Michael Jackson and Nirvana, and Rex Chiu’s choreography spans the globe. And no language is needed to appreciate the magic of Anna Fan’s invigorating percussion score, which is performed on desktops and upturned garbage cans, with everything from pencils to coat hangers serving as drumsticks.

The show’s energy and inventiveness had my seven-year-old companion enthralled—and frequently in stitches. His review, in a word: “Awesome.”

Detention kicks off the ambitious Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival, billed as the first-ever Chinese-language festival in Canadian theatre, which includes master classes as well as two more shows from Hong Kong. It’s an auspicious—and suitably celebratory—beginning.

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