|The Golden Bough Theatre brought Taiwanese o-pei-la to the modern stage for the first time, bringing new power to traditional outdoor drama. Pictured is a scene from The Female Robin Hood--Pai Hsiao Lan, performed at Tungshih Township in Chiayi. (photo by Chen Shao-wei, courtesy of Golden Bough Theatre)
Taiwanese o-pei-la (a play on the word "opera" in Taiwanese) is a jambalaya of pop-cultural conventions and ancient and modern elements, all blended together into the populist flavors of this homegrown theatrical genre.
Its origins can be traced back to the end of the Meiji era (1816-1912), when Taiwanese theater was subjected to "Japanization." Even the puppets in puppet theater were obliged to be outfitted with Japanese attire, and Taiwanese Opera (koa-a-hi--or gezaixi in Mandarin) was subject to restrictions on the use of themes of filial piety and loyalty that could stir up folk sentiment. In order to keep operating, some theaters began to step outside of the rules, to develop theater that combined the styles of Eastern and Western dramas and musicals. Insiders termed this new theatrical genre "o-pei-la."
What is interesting is that this new genre, originally devised as a way to smuggle in performances that could stymie the colonial government's surveillance, eventually developed not only in theaters but also in open-air venues, and can still be found in force at local temple festivals.
O-pei-la has the primary mandate of entertaining its audience. In doing so, it has used all sorts of tricks. Paying customers in theaters, their fees securing sufficient sites, funds, and talent, could witness grandiose sets such as flaming mountains, realistic rain scenes, flying superheroes, and more. Outdoor performances, staged on a more modest scale, nonetheless also displayed impulses towards innovation and currency.
The playwright Shih Ju-fang says, "Taiwanese Opera has never been comparable to traditional Chinese opera in terms of its long tradition and standardized forms. There is an expansive acceptance of the eclecticism in o-pei-la that contrasts with the nitpickiness of more traditional forms." Thus, as long as it is o-pei-la that is being staged, the audience tends to relax, knowing it they might see a performer wearing a denim cap, wielding a samurai sword, singing beiguan melodies. Or, they might witness a performer wearing traditional garb suddenly pull out a cellphone to issue orders rather than utilizing signaling firecrackers. Audiences have learned to enjoy the fruits of such fervid imaginings.
Such observations better prepare one, when enjoying the plots concocted by the recently formed Golden Bough Theatre, to really enter into the world of o-pei-la. It is a theatrical world that fuses trends of the times and ever-changing pop culture in its continuous quest for newness. Since this type of theater is not restricted by any particular historical period and is able to freely improvise, it is able to better reflect everyday voices and social realities. In comparison with the more refined Taiwanese Opera, o-pei-la enjoys more experimental freedom.
The Golden Bough Theatre, founded in 1993, has performed such modern plays as Rite of Passage, Stop the World, Heart of Spring Flowers, and Wading through the Tsuoshui River. The Female Robin Hood--Pai Hsiao Lan, which premiered a decade ago, was staged in the style of outdoor temple dramas put on by local youth in traditional agrarian times, in this case outfitted with a modern stage set up atop a small truck. The audience, which sat freely all around the stage close to the performers, was able to experience the highs and lows of the performance, and was rocked with laughter by the performers' antics. Some in the audience even began conversing with the performers to marvelous improvisational effect, highlighting the power of outdoor theater.
On the day of the premiere, it rained so hard that the stage was moved underneath an overpass. The audience, undeterred by the rain, joined the umbrella-toting performers in a soulful rendition of "One Small Umbrella." At that moment, director Wang Rong-yu peered out into a darkened corner and seemed to see himself again, as the angry young boy that he once was.