Shen Yun – Interesting, but not Great

Heavily advertised with glorious pictures of flying dancers – Shen Yun has always been something I’ve been meaning to see. It comes to Montreal annually – so even though it’s gone on the greener pastures for this year – you can still catch it next year – or even this year if you live elsewhere.

All of which explains why I went – and why I’m blogging about the experience.

For those of you who haven’t seen the heavy-handed marketing efforts of Shen Yun – let’s me explain the concept. This is a 40 performer epic event staged at the big hall at Place des Arts. The marketing features lovely Chinese ladies in flowing outfits free leaping apparently in mid-air. I was totally expecting something out of Spider Man – or at least Peter Pan.

But the reality was just a bit different. First off – the staging is extremely centered – that means if you were on the sides, you got a cropped view. We solved that problem in the 2nd half by simply changing seats. Which gives you a good idea of the amount of vacant seats available. The row ahead of us was almost empty, as were all the lodges and as far as I could see – most of the balconies. Anyway – if you go – get centered seats!

And there are no flying feats. Lots of leaping – and some pretty incredible feet over head flying flips – but to convey the feeling of flying – they used the huge video screen behind the stage. Performers would jump off a raised area at the back of the stage – and disappear from view – only to re-appear almost instantly on the big screen. Their image would fly around – change shape, whatever – and then eventually the person would re-appear on stage. A modern adaption of the Laterna Magika , for those familiar with Expo 58.

Like the Laterna Magika – sometimes the magic worked – sometimes it didn’t. I particularly loved the segment with the Monkey King and the Evil Toad. The story is the traditional good conquers evil – but the character of the Toad was played with absolute stellar skill. And the movement between the stage and the screen made excellent sense.

Similarly – the story of Ne Zha Churns the Sea used the combination of Video and stage extremely well – the actor on stage would wave his magic hoop – the ocean on the screen behind him would react. Neat.

So there were bits and pieces that were outstanding – memorable, interesting, beautiful.

But no new ground was broken, and for the price – that seemed wrong. The stories were all short vignettes – which added up to a lot of theatre, but left one feeling a bit disoriented. A bit like going to a Juste Pour Rire Gala – some of the comedy is great – some just well – not so good.

Most disappointing to me personally however, were the two heavy-handed Falun Dafa sections. I know that this ‘spiritual meditation discipline’ (taken straight from the very expensive, tri-lingual program) is persecuted in China – but I found the black shirted ‘bad boys’ with their painted red hammer and sickle logo in poor taste. And I’m not a fan of heavily promoting any religion – so the dramatically staged final piece with Lord Buddha appearing left me cold. Similarly the 4 singing segments – clearly songs that resonate with Falun Dafa thinking, while well performed, were too heavy-handed because they were unexpected.

Would I go again? No. Would I suggest that you go? If you got seriously discounted tickets (free would be best), and you had no other option – then it’s not an unpleasant way to spend an evening.

But great? No.

Where you sit makes all the difference!

Where you sit makes all the difference!

A man on a chair that towers over the heads of all around him has a different perspective on life – and “Chairs, a Parable”, the new play by Sebastien Archibald takes a radical approach to the idea of perspective.

The play starts simply enough – 3 guys are sitting on the floor – all equals, all sharing in the tasks and experiences that have gone before – and lie ahead. A shadow play behind them shows the passage of time – and evantually becomes a window on the world outside of the theatre stage.

Drawing heavily on works by Pinter – and with the occasional nod to Theatre of the Absurd, the actors in “Chairs” craftily draw the audience into their world view.

Once the first chair – with it’s drastic change in perception – comes on stage – the relationships between the 3 characters begins to change – in increasingly radical ways. At first it’s 2 on the floor against the one with the chair. But eventually it dawns on the 2 that they could build a 2nd chair, slightly shorter than the first one. But it isn’t clear which of them should get the ‘seat’.

Eventually, one is ‘promoted’, and now you have a ‘superior’, a ‘supervisor’ and a worker. The character in the middle position twists and turns trying to see the world from both sides – sometimes successfully – sometimes with very discouraging results.

To describe the play as facsinating would be an understatement. But it’s not just well performed, it asks important questions in a very approachable way. Throughout the whole play I kept thinking about how I look at life – am I guilty of looking at the world only from my point of view? I suspect that most of us do that without realizing it – so isn’t intriguing to watch a play that through the approachable conceit of chairs exposes our inability to recognize our own blinders.

“Chairs, A parable” being performed twice more here in Montreal – on Saturday June 22, 2013 and Sunday June 23, 2014. Make an effort to see it – you will not be disappointed.