Change Is the Only Constant

The word zeitgeist frequently gets bandied about in Christopher Chen's new play,, which received its world premiere a week before Election Day from the folks at Crowded Fire Theater Company.
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The postmortems on the 2012 presidential election have been rolling in. While there is plenty of blame to go around for Mitt Romney's sobering political loss, the question many people keep asking is: How could the conservative media have been so un-fucking-believably wrong?

To understand the magnitude and depth of the cultural shift we've just witnessed, let me recommend four brilliant articles:

This election marked the triumph of Nate Silver using basic math over the faith-based feelings of "truthiness" embraced by conservatives who went with their gut. It showed that voters put their trust in a man they believed would keep working on their behalf as opposed to a pathological liar and vulture capitalist who exhibited all the character traits of a sociopath.

It's not just a question of Karl Rove's mystical powers vanishing into thin air. Nor should it come as any surprise that when hatefully ignorant candidates go out of their way to alienate voters, the public has no obligation to support them.

The bottom line is that, for more than a decade, Republicans have been living in an alternate universe in which, thanks to snake-oil salesmen like Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the folks at Fox News Channel, they made the fatal mistake of trying to live up to their own publicity.

The result? Reality shoved a shit sandwich down their throats and made them choke on it. In the following clip, Stephen Colbert and Andrew Sullivan share their views about what President Obama's re-election means for the future of the Republican party.

* * * * * * * * * *

Wikipedia describes the term zeitgeist as "the spirit of the age or spirit of the time, the intellectual fashion or dominant school of thought which typifies and influences the culture of a period." The word zeitgeist frequently gets bandied about in Christopher Chen's new play, The Hundred Flowers Project, which received its world premiere a week before Election Day from the folks at Crowded Fire Theater Company.

Chen's play has undergone a two-year gestation period which included numerous readings and workshops, some of them under the auspices of the Playwrights Foundation's Bay Area Playwrights Festival, the Magic Theatre's Asian Explosion Festival, and the LARK New Play Development Lab in New York City. When I attended a reading of the script during the Crowded Fire Theater's Matchbox Reading Series, I was unable to wrap my mind about what Chen was attempting or how his play could be staged in a meaningful way.

Poster art for The Hundred Flowers Project

Part of the problem was that I had no way of anticipating how creatively video would become a part of framing the change in mass media's effect on a cultural (political) revolution through the rapidly changing dimensions of a digital (technical) revolution. Because the script reading I attended took place prior to the clown show that became the Republican Party's primaries, my mind was not focused on people so heavily into historical revisionism that they seem to live in a fantasy world whose foundation rests upon madness, lies, and magical realism. Unlike Karl Rove, I have always sided with the reality-based community.

Playwright Christopher Chen with director Desdemona Chiang
(Photo by: Pak Han)

As the play begins, a group of actors is doing stretching exercises and preparing to brainstorm ideas about a new play which will focus on the Cultural Revolution led by Mao Tse-tung. As the word "zeitgeist" keeps getting thrown around, the political inspiration for a play within a play starts to merge with the personal tensions underlying the relationships between some of the actors.

The cast of The Hundred Flowers Project
(Photo by: Pak Han)

This actor's workshop is being facilitated by Mel (Clarisse Loriaux), a director/dramaturg who can be manipulative when necessary and mysterious when convenient. Aidan (Will Dao) and Sam (Ogie Zulueta) are two eager beavers, dutiful actors trying to wrap their minds around the history and concept of the piece.

Mike (Wiley Naman Strasser), who used to be in a relationship with Lily (Anna Ishida), has brought his new girlfriend, Julie (Cindy Im) along to the rehearsal/workshop. Because she doesn't have to believe in the project, Julie has a clarity of mind which allows her to see things the others cannot.


Lily (Anna Ishida) with Mike (Wiley Naman Strasser) in
The Hundred Flowers Project (Photo by: Pak Han)

Later, as the play takes on a life of its own and grows to become an international arena show which has a transformative effect on people's lives, Ms. Im plays a journalist who tries to interview members of the original cast (who have become increasingly confused and paranoid as truths become more twisted, power changes hands, and reality becomes more elusive) -- kind of like what happens if you live on a steady diet of watching Fox News. As the playwright explains:

"In 1956, Mao invited the Chinese people to offer criticisms of their government. In a speech called "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People" he said "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred thoughts contend." People responded and began to speak out. They wrote their thoughts on paper and postered the walls with their criticisms. Although it was Mao's initial idea, he reacted forcefully against critics. He circulated a memo to party officials entitled "Things are turning into their opposites," pointing to the threat of "revisionism" and calling out "capitalist rightists" as responsible for the attacks. At that point people realized that it was a trap. What followed was a nationwide purge of those who spoke up in the Hundred Flowers Campaign.

I was always fascinated by Mao. He conducted one of the largest social experiments in human history, sucking an entire nation into a surreal, cult-like psychological power game. What I'm most fascinated by (and what I chose to zero in on for this play) are the ways in which he played with the idea of what is "natural." He was a philosopher at heart, and believed it was "natural" for a country to exist in a state of perpetual revolution. This gave him ideological cover as he discreetly set in motion elaborate power plays. So I was excited to really grapple with those paradoxes, and excited to see how theater itself (which intrinsically challenges our ideas of what is artifice and what isn't) could be used as a vessel for his exploration. To me, Mao's reign marks the start of the modern era, where supreme power is given to those who can control the narrative of mass consciousness. By mingling technology with history, I aim to draw parallels to our chaotic, Facebook-a-tized mass consciousness and the current and upcoming power struggles over its narrative."

A scene from The Hundred Flowers Project
Photo by: Pak Han

Throughout the performance, Wesley Cabral's video design employs iPhones and strategically located digital cameras to transmit constantly shifting images of the actors as they perform their lines. The following two video clips (taken during a tech rehearsal and a preview performance) give a sense of how acutely video is integrated into the storytelling process as a choreographic narrative element.

Thus, what may look like a cheap, unfinished set upon entering the theatre becomes an arena of shifting emotional and political sands in which a character's inner thoughts can be screened on a flat surface as the actor searches for a physical or cultural reference point (which will evaporate into thin air before he can grasp its meaning). Instead of Six Characters in Search of an Author, one might think of this production as "Six Acrobats in Search of Dramatic Gravity."

At a certain point, Chen's play becomes like the kind of dream sequence in which the audience (unable to hold onto any solid landmarks as the culture keeps shifting shape, the characters keep changing their stories, and the worldview becomes more slippery) is forced to release its grip on a disintegrating reality and go along with the ride as if watching a play unfold from within a kaleidoscope. In some ways, the experience reminded me of this famous sequence from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Chen's new play is an extremely challenging work whose theatrical concept is framed by a mash-up of emerging technology that will leave audiences with plenty of food for thought. Performances of The Hundred Flowers Project continue at Thick House through November 17.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape

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