Mr. Shi and His Lover
By Wong Teng Chi and Njo Kong Kie. Directed by Tam Chi Chun. Composed by Njo Kong Kie. At Tarragon Theatre. Runs until December 17.
How is it possible for a couple to have a passionate affair for twenty years where the man doesn’t know his partner is male until it is startlingly revealed? This is one of the questions examined in this exquisite production of Mr. Shi and His Lover.
This piece of music theatre—a blend between a play and an opera—is based on a true story from the 1980s. Bernard Boursicot (Derek Kwan) is a French diplomat stationed in China. Shi Pei Pu (Jordan Cheng) is an elegant opera singer who, for his entire career with the Peking Opera, performed women’s roles to perfection. Boursicot and Shi, dressed as a woman, meet, fall in love, and begin a relationship that is physical and emotional. In a turn of political events, it comes out that Shi is a man, and had kept up his false image to perfect his “performance” and perhaps please Boursicot.
How is that possible, one might ask? Because of shyness and an adherence to Chinese tradition, Shi never took his clothes in front of Boursicot and insisted they made love in the dark.
This real-life story also formed the basis of the play M. Butterfly, which opened on Broadway about thirty years ago. Interestingly there is a revival of M. Butterfly on Broadway now. I saw it last weekend. It’s dreadful.
Fortunately for us, Mr. Shi and His Lover is absolutely stunning to look at, provocative, and artful in every single way.
Playwright Wong Teng Chi presents the work in seven distinct scenes that reflect on love, identity, and achieving balance in one’s life. Composer Njo Kong Kie uses a combination of musical influences from Chinese opera to Western music, much of it sung by Kwan and Cheng, to augment the storytelling. The entire production is performed in Mandarin with English subtitles, which are clear in their translation and easy to read.
The space is minimalist, making it all the more elegant. There are two beautiful Persian rugs on the floor. There is a leather chair centre stage, where Shi and Boursicot occasionally sit, as if being interrogated, revealing parts of their lives. A formal Chinese opera robe hangs stage right. A piano sits on one side of the stage; a marimba and Chinese percussion on the other. All the music comes from these few instruments. These few set pieces and props create a world of elegance.
Boursicot and Shi wear beautiful suits and ties. Shi, ever aspiring to the feminine, incorporates a more languid walk and delicacy when he sits, placing his hands one on top of the other on his knees. Both men sing beautifully, sucking us into the moments they are creating. When Shi puts on the opera robe to perform, he is mesmerizing.
If there is another star in this production it’s Gabriel Fung Kwok Kee, the lighting designer. The mood that’s set is stark and eerie, evocative of a world hiding secrets, and so artistic it was breathtaking. Often, while one of the performers was centre stage, the other was upstage, half of him illuminated, the rest in shadow, as if he was hiding, or eavesdropping.
This production was a perfect melding of performance, design, music, and direction. Compelling story. Stunningly told.
For tickets or more information, click here.
To read actor Derek Kwan’s thoughts on language, music, and performance, click here.