By Akanksha Raja
(620 words, four-minute read)
拾念劇集 La Cie Maxmind’s Isle of Dreams (蓬萊) was the headlining event for the George Town Festival’s Taiwan-focused showcase this year. It is a three-hour long work of musical theatre, original in story and in language, loosely adapted from the geography and mythology detailed in the Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海經), a 4th-century Chinese compendium of ancient lands and legends that is part fact and part fable. Written and directed by company founder Lee Yi-hsiu (李易修), Isle of Dreams is the second instalment in a trilogy that tells the story of various gods from different factions battling for control over a divine garden. It is set against the delicate and powerful soundtrack of Nanguan and Beiguan music played live by four musicians – including composer Hsu Shu-hui (許淑慧) – who are seated upon a small craggy mound upstage left, with the action taking place in front of them.
The use of intricate gothic masks and puppetry, and elaborate poetry and movement sequences, immerses the text in all the flavours of an epic fantasy. There’s also the archetypal sinister witch, frizzy-haired and cackling; a carnivorous zombie fish; talking birds, puckish Mud and Sky Spirits, and various power-hungry deities.
Certainly notable is the production’s use of an entirely new language, a meticulous part of world-building (the surtitles for every show of this production are in both Chinese and English). Devised from ancient Chinese phonetic principles blended with the phonetics of Minnan, Hakka, Suzhou and Cantonese dialects, the strange new language has the resulting effect of rendering all of the dialogue foreign to sinophone and non-sinophone audiences alike. It reminded me of fantasy writer JRR Tolkien’s “glossopoeia”, a term he coined referring to the practice of inventing languages for the fictional worlds he created.
Indeed, entering Isle of Dreams is like being plunged into the fictional cosmos of Lord of the Rings (or even Game of Thrones) – midway through a sequel or a season. As the plot thickened and twisted, I found myself struggling to register the names of a mind-boggling array of crucial characters, and to follow their relationships with each other, their histories, their hidden motives. Even with the relief of an intermission, my attention and interest wilted under the weight of the narrative, and I quickly found myself drifting away in the second half.
I did find the performers’ excellent manoeuvring of puppetry and masks the most arresting feature of the production. The cast consists of only five performers deftly navigating a gamut of characters and puppet-figures across different scenes, and their energy took over the wide, spacious stage of the Dewan Sri Pinang auditorium which could have easily drowned out less skilled and commanding actors. Yeh Man-ling’s (葉曼玲) larger-than-life mask and puppet design helped considerably. The masks sit on top of the actors’ heads, making visible their expressiveness while also channelling the mystique of each of the mythical personas they embody. The alluring grotesque of the masks is what gives the production its otherworldly charm.
Where I felt the aesthetics of the production fell glaringly short was in Wang Yei-Sheng’s (王奕盛) multimedia projections that formed the two-dimensional backdrop of the performance. Perhaps it was in part due to the auditorium’s projection and screen equipment, but the resolution of some of the video and animation – depicting landscapes of ominous terrain and thunderous skies – appeared distorted and unclear, which did not enhance and elevate the otherwise well-executed storytelling.
Isle of Dreams is clearly an ambitious endeavour displaying sophisticated artistry in the use of puppetry, performance, costume design, and musical composition, but it felt weighed down by a dense narrative.
“誰的名字？誰的故事？《蓬萊》” by 文 吳岳霖 (pareviews)
Following its premiere in Taipei in 2016, Isle of Dreams (蓬萊) by La Cie Maxmind (拾念劇集) featured at the 2018 Taiwan International Festival of Arts in March, and after travelling to the George Town Festival, where it ran at Dewan Sri Pinang from 18 – 19 August 2018.