Performers in Jade in the Coal are a delight to watch

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      By Paul Yee. Directed by Heidi Specht. Coproduced by Pangaea Arts and Theatre at UBC. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Thursday, November 25. Continues until December 4

      I’m sure it looked like a good idea on paper. Vancouver-based Pangaea Arts has joined forces with the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy First Troupe to present Jade in the Coal, a play set in Cumberland, B.C., in 1899. Cumberland had a huge Chinatown—in North America, it was second only to San Francisco’s—that housed workers from the local coal mine. It also had two Chinese opera houses where touring companies performed.

      Unfortunately, Paul Yee’s script is all over the place, especially in Act 1. It takes forever for the central narrative to emerge: Sally, a Chinese-Canadian woman, has been forced by her father to marry the relatively wealthy store owner Wu Kwun, even though she’s still in love with the dashing gambler Lew Chong. When the Chinese opera troupe arrives in town, its members rehearse Sorrow at Jade Palace, which basically tells Sally and Lew’s story with royal characters.

      Playwright and historian Yee is trying to cover so many topics at once—western and Chinese medicine, political unrest in the mine, family relationships, romance—that it’s hard to know where to focus and impossible to care. The characters are slapdash and make unrealistic decisions to accommodate the plot: Lew invests all of his money in a Cuban tobacco plantation, for instance, but is remarkably willing to abandon the project. Although there’s a lot of fuss about the lead opera performer, Evergreen, being possessed by the ghosts of dead miners, we know so little about Evergreen or the miners that a huge amount of stage time goes by without meaningful emotional content. And, when Yee finally tells us about Evergreen’s past, he does so in momentum-killing exposition delivered by another character.

      Fortunately, the performers from the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy are a delight to watch, and not only because of the precision and athleticism of their movement. Lihao Yang plays the troupe’s leader with charismatic warmth, Jiading Chen is a scene-stealing clown, Ruqing Wen makes a sensitive Evergreen, and (Wilfred) Peng Mun Aw Yeong, a man who plays the female roles in the company, is a walking lesson in feminine wiles.

      Minh Ly, who plays Lew Chong, stands out among the local performers. Ly is an increasingly commanding young actor who brings a welcome simplicity and depth of feeling to this project. Some of the other performances by locals are halting.

      Under Heidi Specht’s direction, the evening is conceptually at sea. Stylized movement elements mix awkwardly with naturalistic physicality in the framing story, for instance. And Robert Gardiner’s set design leans too heavily on fuzzy projections.

      The evening is underscored by Jin Zhang’s engagingly multitextured original score, which a six-member international ensemble plays on instruments that range from the bowed, two-stringed erhu to the saxophone.

      If only the script and production were as successful as the musical collaboration is.



      Todd Wong

      Nov 28, 2010 at 12:10pm

      Saw Jade in the Coal last night @ UBC. It is a delight - with its emphasis on Chinese Opera, ghosts, and family ties. There is lots dialogue and singing in Cantonese - but with projected titles on the side of the stage, it is no different than reading surtitles for European operas sung in Italian, French or Czech.

      Michael Robinson

      Nov 29, 2010 at 11:48pm

      Go see this play! The Cantonese Opera performers are stunning.

      David Kamber

      Nov 30, 2010 at 11:15am

      I have yet to read a review by Colin Thomas that shows any understanding of Asian performing arts. I can only explain his consistently terrible reviews by his fast and flashy westernized preferences.

      There's no doubt in my mind that Colin Thomas is not a cultured person outside of his comfort zone of North American theatre.

      Colin Thomas GS

      Nov 30, 2010 at 10:30pm

      Thanks for writing, David Kamber. You have confused me, though. The elements of this production that I enjoyed the most”š—the performances of the players in the Cantonese opera, and the music throughout—are the elements where the influence of the Guangdong Opera Academy is strongest. Quite possibly, I found these pieces so interesting because they are "outside my comfort zone of North American theatre", but certainly not the reverse.
      Colin Thomas

      Jo Clarke

      Dec 2, 2010 at 1:15pm

      I really enjoyed seeing this play yesterday. I was very moved by the early scenes of tragedy and loss. I've studied Chinese-Canadian history, but the performances and mood created with sight and sound added great emotional depth to that understanding. The play was also a great delight with its humor and talented musical performances. The Cantonese opera was a revelation. I've never appreciated this art form before, and I am well and truly converted. The physical precision and nuance reminded me a little of classical Indian dance, but the powerful vocals were unlike anything I've heard before. The whole performance was a truly rewarding experience.

      Paul Yeung

      Dec 2, 2010 at 2:19pm

      While the local cast with some of the stedent actors was not perfect, there is no doubt of the professional standard of the visiting Guangdong
      Cantonese Opera Troupe. Aw Yeung, who played the male dan in the
      play-within-the-play, was absolutely stunning. I think Colin Thomas looking for a well-made play of the Western tradition missed the point of
      the 'total' theatre in Asia. Instead of a presentation of the real life, Asian
      theatre often means to be a performance, or just a story-telling session
      in the representational sense, for both entertainment and education, leaving much imagination for the audience to judge the truth.

      Samson Tam

      Dec 4, 2010 at 11:31pm

      I also agree that I found the play scattered in its focus.
      Especially in all of the character's backgrounds (Cuba, ghosts, miners, Jade, Sally, etc...).

      I felt it was a bit preachy on part of how the ending to Sally's story was dealt with. Can we or Paul Yee confidently say that the miners' wanted their bones left and buried here in Vancouver Island?

      However adapting Chinese opera to Western play is a difficult task. Jade in the Coal is a good first start at introducing new ideas.

      Brian Charlton

      Dec 6, 2010 at 4:28pm

      I saw this production last Tuesday and I must say I enjoyed it immensely.
      It seems to be the concesus that the Cantonese Opera segments were the standout pieces but I think Mr. Thomas is selling the more historical and naturalist parts short. The conflicts between Chinese miners and whites, between miners and merchants , and between traditional and more 'modern' views of women's roles were all part of Cumberland's history and thus part of this play and I think strenghtened it. Some of the play could have been tightened up but given the limited budget etc I thought it was well worth seeing. I hope at some point in the future it is restaged. Kudos to Paul Yee and all the performers.

      Michelle Linhart

      Dec 12, 2010 at 8:26pm

      I had to see this play as part of my Drama class at UBC. I was very reluctant about going and in the end I did the one thing I have never done in my entire life of attenind the theatre - I left in the middle of the first half.
      Now, that wasn't because the play itself was bad. I had read the script beforehand and so I knew what was going on a great deal more than most audience members, but it was because I knew the story that I had no desire to stay. The on-stage performance added nothing to the story, besides the visual acrobatics of the Cantonese Opera performers. Nothing drew me in, to stay and watch the story unfold. Because, as the 100-or-so of us Drama students that read the play ultimately decided...there is no story. So how can I sit through 3 hours of something without a concrete story to follow? Not to mention in a language entirely foreign to mine?
      As a whole, it was not a terrible production, but perhaps Paul Yee should have taken into consideration Partice Pavis' Hourglass Model before letting the play go onstage.