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Mr. Shi and His Lover

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Mr. Shi and His Lover
Written by
Wong Teng Chi
Genre
Musical
Directed by
Tam Chi Chun
Actors
Jordan Cheng and Derek Kwan
Music
Njo Kong Kie
Venue
Tarragon Theatre
City
Toronto

The bizarre case of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot, who conducted a 20-year affair with the Beijing opera singer-cum-spy Shi Pei Pu – all the time believing him to be a woman – is back in the spotlight again. That's thanks to M. Butterfly, American playwright David Henry Hwang's celebrated 1988 drama based on the story, which is currently getting a major Broadway revival starring Clive Owen and directed by Julie Taymor.

But let's turn the spotlight away from Hwang's play and train it on a less starry, more intimate show. Mr. Shi and His Lover, the new chamber musical at Tarragon Theatre, takes the same real-life tale but attacks it from a different angle. Where Hwang told it from the perspective of the duped diplomat with his romantic Western fantasies about the East, this piece – co-created by Canadian composer Njo Kong Kie and Macau playwright Wong Teng Chi – sees it primarily from the Asian Shi's more knowing point of view.

It is also a very different creature from M. Butterfly. Its creators are less concerned with redramatizing the case than with exploring the minds of the two men. The result is a highly introspective work that presupposes a familiarity with the source material and, to make it even more challenging, is acted and sung almost entirely in Mandarin with English surtitles.

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Like M. Butterfly, Mr. Shi opens with the pair in prison for spying, Shi having seduced Boursicot into passing confidential French documents to the Chinese. But it's Shi (played with supple charm by Jordan Cheng) who narrates the scene. And while the Frenchman's obsession with Puccini's Madama Butterfly is duly noted, it's Shi's favourite Chinese folk tale, "The Butterfly Lovers" (itself a staple of Chinese opera), that is given more weight.

That tragic romance, concerning a girl disguised as a boy, was Shi's own fixation and inspired him to pretend to be a woman living as a man. The sexually confused Boursicot, who was attracted to Shi but seeking a wife, fell easily for the ruse. How Shi kept up the deception in the bedroom has been revealed in creepy detail by the couple's biographer, Joyce Wadler. Playwright Wong doesn't go there, but keeps his sights on loftier matters, such as the nature of performance and the meaning of secrets. This is not a show for the prurient.

It is, however, a show for the musically adventurous. Njo, erstwhile music director for those veteran avant-gardists, Quebec dance troupe La La La Human Steps, has composed a score as sly and seductive as Shi himself. Defying easy definitions, it will slip from strains of Beijing opera to those of its European equivalent, throw in witty references to other works, then surprise us with a modern ballad.

Wong's accompanying libretto can be enjoyably lush, especially when Derek Kwan's besotted Boursicot compares Shi's beauty with that of Beijing's Old Summer Palace. But his philosophical musings tend to be dry and knotty – at least in English translation. Perhaps they're more lyrical in Mandarin.

Mr. Shi was first presented at the 2016 SummerWorks Festival to much acclaim – hence its return as part of Tarragon's season – with Cheng and Kwan originating the roles that they repeat here. Cheng's Shi, handsome and soft-featured, isn't so much androgynous as gender fluid. He's roguish in his masculine persona, coquettish when he dons the makeup and mannerisms of an opera heroine. Vocally he's no less dextrous, sliding into a falsetto that has an intriguing feline lilt.

Kwan's balding, sturdy Boursicot has a ruffled dignity that's initially comic, although we feel for him when his romantic love for Shi comes up against the latter's self-absorption as an artist. He's also a fine, heartfelt singer.

Tam Chi Chun, artistic director of Macau Experimental Theatre, the show's co-producer, offers a staging that hovers teasingly between a play and a recital. His set consists of little more than a dressing-stand with a mirror and a red Oriental carpet. Cheng's Shi is only partly costumed as a Beijing opera diva, suggesting the role but never affecting a full transformation. And while Cheng moves across the stage with sinuous grace, at other times he and Kwan simply stand and sing. They're flanked upstage by Njo on piano and Yukie Lai on marimba, with the two musicians also playing gongs and other distinctive Chinese percussion.

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Yet, despite the sensuous score and Cheng's beguiling performance, Mr. Shi finally feels too cerebral for a tale of erotic subterfuge. Shi and Boursicot sing of their love but we never witness it. Dramatically, the piece is unsatisfying. Musically, however, it's a constant delight. It only whets our appetite for Njo's next Canada-Macau collaboration, Picnic in the Cemetery, to be presented later this season at Canadian Stage.

Mr. Shi and His Lover continues to Dec. 17 (tarragontheatre.com).

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