This year, the SummerWorks Performance Festival is presenting its first-ever Chinese-language production: Mr. Shi and His Lover, an original musical in Mandarin by Toronto-based composer Njo Kong Kie and Macanese playwright Wong Teng Chi. Given the sizeable Chinese community in Toronto, I’ve often wondered why SummerWorks (and other festivals/theatres that present international work) don’t present more Chinese-Language theatre. This gorgeous contemporary musical theatre piece makes a strong case that they should.
The musical is based on the true story of the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking opera singer whom he believed to be a woman since female roles were played by men in traditional Peking opera. Shi was in fact a Chinese spy and both he and Boursicot would eventually be convicted and imprisoned in France for spying for China. Western audiences may be familiar with the story as it was also the inspiration for David Henry Hwang’s play (and subsequent movie) M. Butterfly.
Mr. Shi and His Lover is an intimate chamber musical, an exquisitely poetic collection of musical conversations and soliloquies where the two characters, Shi (Jordan Cheng) and Bernard (Derek Kwan), look back on their relationship. It explores the strange power dynamic between the two of them. The result is something like Puccini’s Madama Butterfly crossed with Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.
The musical isn’t action-oriented or plot-driven, instead it is a beautifully rich character study of these two individuals; Shi the dutiful spy, having carried out the ruse for twenty years, and Bernard, the jilted lover who still longs for him, having betrayed his country for their love.
What I love about this story is how it turns the orientalist fantasy of Puccini on its head; we have a delicious role reversal with the Asian in the position of power by way of a cold and calculating and almost cruel ruse vis-à-vis the tragically oblivious and lovelorn Westerner.
Njo’s score is a fascinating contemporary composition that blends traditional Chinese stylistic references. The musical is written in a recitative (talk-singing) style that more closely resembles dialogue rather than a typical song structure.
The score is helped immensely by the delivery of two fantastic performers. Jordan Cheng has a magnetic presence as Shi, I was drawn to his performance throughout. Derek Kwan is more grounded as the Lover yet surprisingly sensitive and sympathetic in the role.
Mr. Shi and His Lover is well worth a visit. Don’t miss the opportunity to see a superb contemporary Chinese musical in Toronto.
Mr. Shi and His Lover is playing at The Theatre Centre Mainspace (1115 Queen Street West)
- Friday August 5th, 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
- Saturday August 6th, 9:15 PM – 10:45 PM
- Sunday August 7th, 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM
- Monday August 8th, 9:00 PM – 10:30 PM
- Thursday August 11th, 5:15 PM – 6:45 PM
- Friday August 12th, 10:15 PM – 11:45 PM
- Saturday August 13th, 1:15 PM – 2:45 PM
Individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Youth Series tickets are $10, Live Art Series ticket prices vary. Tickets are available online at summerworks.ca, by phone at 416-320-5779 and in person at the SummerWorks Central Box Office – located at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St). Open August 2-14 from 10am-7pm. Cash and credit accepted.
Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows.
Photo provided by SummerWorks