"Whoops" is what I muttered when I stepped into the auditorium of Carnegie Mellon's Chosky Theater: Even though it was still 10 minutes to 8, I saw that a cast of 14 young men and women was standing stock-still onstage in a circle (as they had already been for several minutes previously), dressed in identical black pants and shirts ... and I knew I was in for an evening of Important International Theater.
The show is called The Other Shore. It's written by Chinese playwright Gao Xingjian, and directed for CMU's School of Drama by Tang Shuwing. My "Whoops" was uttered for a couple of reasons. I'm not a big fan of Important International Theater, so I saw a fairly dry evening ahead. And, too, I wondered whether I was the best person to be reviewing the performance.
As it turns out, it was a dry evening. But it wouldn't have mattered who had reviewed it, because if there's one thing I'm certain about Shuwing and/or Xingjian, it's this: The audience, and specifically its comprehension of the event at hand, is the last thing they're worrying about.
The Other Shore is less a play than a movement piece on the theme of the individual versus society. It's 14 kids running around on stage in a variety of theater games, the very sparse dialogue rarely rising above cliché. And I should say that Xingjian's view of women is firmly rooted in the Madonna/whore idiom.
Trying to get a grasp on what I was seeing, I turned to the program for some help. Big mistake. Apparently The Other Shore marked a departure in the playwright's work toward Modern Zen Theater, which those of you who have done your extra-credit work will remember is theater which attempts to transcend language and form in order to achieve a self-observant, Nirvana-like state.
Additionally, Xingjian demands that his actors go that extra mile and, when doing one of his shows, divide their consciousnesses into three states. He writes: "There is 'Me' (the individual), the actor (his occupation) and the character. 'I,' 'You,' 'He.' In the process of the actor entering into his role, there is an intermediate state that I call the neutral actor."
And it's a state I call "the neurotic actor."
The direction, I'm sorry to report, remains as abstruse as the writing. The theater has been reconfigured so the audience sits on opposite sides of the performance space, facing each other. But Shuwing directs to the other two sides, facing blank walls. He repeatedly, and purposefully, blocks our view of the action, and since the only thing going on onstage is that action, we're left in the dark.
I'm also left in the dark by the scheduling of this "play" for production. Actually, that's my biggest complaint of the evening: It may look good on a grant form, and perhaps it gives you bragging rights at the next Convention of Drama Schools cocktail mixer. But for the rest of us (including the people who walked out periodically during the one-hour-and-40 minute intermissionless performance), The Other Shore is in every way a non-starter. The audience isn't served, sure. But, criminally, neither are the students. You'd think that would be the purpose of a drama school.
The Other Shore continues through Sat., Oct. 11. Philip Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-2407