Review: Mr. Shi and His Lover is a tautly executed piece of musical theatre

Jordan Cheng and Derek Kwan in a scene from Mr. Shi and His Lover. Photo: Erik Kuong

A word of advice: If you’re going to see this superlative chamber musical, take the time to read the introductory notes from Macau Experimental Theatre that accompany the National Arts Centre’s program as well as the program itself.

That material will give you not just the show’s background – for instance, it’s based on a two-decades long, real-life love affair between two men: a French diplomat and a Peking opera singer who presented himself as a woman – but also provide invaluable explanatory musical and storyline anchors for a show that, like its concerns with love, deceit, identity and the nature of performance, eludes easy categorization and slyly resists our natural hunger for definitive answers in the face of ambiguity.

All of which may make the show sound like a coolly analytical academic thesis. It’s anything but.

Performed in Mandarin with Chinese and English surtitles, the tautly executed production brims with grand passion in frequent operatic manner (composer Njo Kong Kie has referenced traditions of eastern and western music including opera). It cavorts with humour that readily topples into despair (love and life are rife with disappointment in playwright Wong Teng Chi’s text). And Jordan Cheng, he of the fluid voice and eloquent body, is nothing short of riveting as the shape-shifting opera singer Mr. Shi (Cheng’s opposite number, Derek Kwan, is perfect as the stolid Bernard Boursicot, the French diplomat whose ensnarement in love casts him ashore in a strange new land ruled by the vagaries of the heart, not the mind).

Some of this sounds familiar, you say?

It should. The strange story of Shi Pei Pu and Boursicot was inspired by David Henry Hwang’s 1988 drama M. Butterfly, a revival of which recently closed on Broadway. That, in turn, has roots in Giacomo Puccini’s early 20th century opera Madama Butterfly.

Shi and Boursicot, who met in the 1960s, were arrested and tried in the early 1980s for espionage. During the trial, Shi was revealed to be a man and Boursicot said he had been unaware of it until that moment.

Mr. Shi and His Lover very loosely frames the story as courtroom testimony. Each man gives his interpretation of their story, interpretations that readily expand into such broader issues as how performance may be what defines us as humans and whether love – the ultimate mystery and what this story is really all about – can, as in John Lennon’s Imagine, lift us above narrow concepts like nationality.

Through this float allusions to butterflies including the butterfly effect and the iconic Chinese folktale The Butterfly Lovers, both of which deal with the show’s theme of transformation – its rich possibilities and the tragic price it exacts. 

Wong’s text captures all this in exquisite detail. One minute we’re in a world of peacocks and fragrant spring blossoms, the next we’re plummeted into deception and suspicion.

Fung Kwok Kee Gabriel’s lighting design – suggestive, sometimes menacing shadows, occasional spotlights like a movie close-up of a man on the witness stand – urge the non-linear story along.

On stage are composer/music director Njo playing piano and Chinese percussion along with Yukie Lai on marimba and Chinese percussion. The two, at opposite sides of the stage, flank the action, their music as much characters in the show as Shi and his lover are.

With director Tam Chi Chun guiding proceedings, Mr. Shi and His Lover offers no solutions to the conundrum of being human. Fluidity – of gender, of perception, of stance – is perhaps all, but even that remains ambiguous. And, in the end, that ambiguity proves far more satisfying than answers because it is true to life.

Mr. Shi and His Lover is A Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic/Point View Art Association (Macau/Toronto) production. It was reviewed Thursday. In the Azrieli Studio until Jan. 13. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.