13: a micro-play about this crazy society

06 Oct 2011

Not long ago, my wife and I went to see a Chinese version of the classic play 12 Angry Men. Over the October holiday we decided to go see another play (comedy this time), and what better play to follow 12 Angry Men than a new independent “micro-play” (微话剧) called “Thirteen” (拾叁, which is 大写 for “十三“)?

We ended up really enjoying the 90-odd minute performance. It was created by a group which calls itself “Why Not” in English, and 歪脑 (a transliteration into Chinese which means something like “skewed brain”). The whole play was performed by only three talented young actors:

歪脑 Actors

歪脑 Actors

The promotional poster for the play we saw:

"13 Society" poster

Here’s my partial translation of the micro-play’s description, taken from the introduction on the Why Not website:

> Micro-play “Thirteen” (Society)

> Keywords for “Thirteen”

> comedy, lives of the people, current events, micro-play, improv, interactive, experiential

> History of “Thirteen”

> Shísān: shortened form of the classic Shanghainese slang “shísān diǎn” (thirteen o’clock). “Shísān diǎn” was originally a transliteration of the English word “society,” a pejorative term used in the last century for those who closely followed the trends of the times and obsessed over socializing. Later it was extended to refer to people or things which are “not normal, fun, funny,” and can often have a positive connotation.

> English “society” could refer to the whole of society, a club, or social life.

> The micro-play “Thirteen,” makes use of the “funny, spoof” meanings, but puts more emphasis on the “society, lives of the people” aspects.

> Tagline for “Thirteen”

> Use the “thirteen” attitude to view this era, which 1.3 billion (13亿) people are experiencing together!

> Content Outline of “Thirteen”

> This is the funniest era. It is also the evilest era.

> Here, total luxury and homelessness coexist, Lamborghinis and tractors coexist; here, food prices and rocket ships soar, as do oil and Maotai. Here, there are both Li Gang and Li Chengpeng; there are both Guo Guangchang, and also Guo Meimei. There are the Olympics and the World Expo, as well as the Red Cross. Here, both “China’s Got Talent” and “China’s Sick People” are on every day, while both the country’s GDP and the water levels in its flooded cities are rapidly rising…. Here, what follows hope is disappointment, but following disappointment, a new hope may spring up yet again….

> As it happens, we’re living in just this confluence of events. But without all these events we witness; this play could not exist.

> Whether you’re worried about the stock prices (as disappointing as the Chinese soccer team), or our food quality (as unreliable as the new bullet trains), or, like the Forbidden City, you just can’t hold onto what you treasure most, to tell you the truth, we can’t solve a single one of these issues. But there is one thing we can do: as these dog days make faces at us, we can at least find an opportunity to make some faces back. This opportunity is in “Thirteen.”

> So come on, take 90 minutes of time, 1000 square meters of space, audience and actors, stage and backstage, laughs and curses, pretenders and morons, and let’s all make faces back, and at each other.

> Content and Segments (these may change at any time; this is a Chinese characteristic, if you know what we mean):

[I left these “segments” out, because they didn’t seem to reflect what I saw, as the site warns. Here are the segments we saw, in my own words:]

– Teacher and student skit
– A crackdown on street vendors skit
– A “I won’t stay with you if you can’t provide for all my material needs” modern woman skit
– A series of interview skits
– A kung fu monk skit
– A doctor seeing patients skit (including a very racy but cleverly acted scene where a prostitute brought in a customer who had OD’d on Viagra and collapsed)
– A visit from Cecilia Cheung (张柏芝) skit

This play was quite challenging to follow, because not only was it performed with rapid-fire delivery, but it also referenced a lot of current events, with internet culture thrown in too. There were references to both the Wenzhou bullet train wreck as well as Shanghai’s recent subway accident, for example. Plenty of social commentary.

I enjoyed all three actors, but 苏永豪‘s was especially memorable (pictured above; the guy in glasses). He played so many roles, including several hilarious cross-dressing ones and a number of accents, and he was very funny in all of them. He was also really good in the impromptu audience interaction parts. A real pro performer.

Anyway, if you’re up for the challenge of trying to follow a modern Chinese play, this one probably isn’t an easy one to start with, but it’s definitely an interesting one. It had a fair amount of slapstick and action, too, which would keep you engaged even if you don’t follow a lot of what’s said. At 120 RMB per ticket (here), it’s not cheap, but it’s a much better entertainment investment than Transformers 3!

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

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