culture

Peking Behind The Curtain

Black Dragon Mountain Brings Chinese Theatre to the Halifax Stage

In 2012, DaPoPo Live-In Theatre performed a sit-down reading of Roy Ellis’ play, Black Dragon Mountain. Kate Watson, theatre critic for The Coast and Contributing Editor at Hello Dartmouth, reviewed this intriguing debut:

“Last night I attended the reading of Black Dragon Mountain by Roy Ellis. Unstaged readings are often the first time a playwright gets the chance to hear the dialogue outside of his or her own head. It’s a chance for the writer to observe what works and what doesn’t, and to watch an audience react to his brain child. It’s a crap-shoot for the audience… the chance to be present at the birth of a masterpiece or a work that’s headed back to the drawing board.

Black Dragon Mountain is a combination of both. Ellis is a wordsmith who weaves a vibrant tapestry of sex, violence and discovery. He is part poet, part pornographer, which is a combination that may well be difficult to bring to the stage. The six actors on stage definitely delighted in Ellis’s delicious words, and the story obviously held the audience’s interest even with a bare-bones reading.”

The initial steps of Ellis’ journey occurred ten years ago when visiting parents, who were teaching abroad in China. While in the national capital of Beijing, Roy gained his first exposure to Peking Opera. As stated by Ellis, Peking Opera possesses “an austerity that’s supposed to be there.” It is stark. Props are used sparingly. “There’s perhaps a table, or a red lacquered chair. That’s it. Peking Opera is empty but filled with characters.” Ellis goes on to emphasize that the use of colour and vibrancy are the pillars of Peking theatre, likening it to the brilliant, delicate plumage of peacocks. The performance left Ellis enthralled; “I was captivated by the content, even though I had no idea what they were talking about… There are ‘stock’ characters- the singsong girl, the master, the clownish peasants.”

Upon his arrival back in Canada, Ellis indulged his obsession with Chinese literature, which inspired him to concoct his own Peking creation. Black Dragon Mountain signals a detour and departure from the two musicals (General Hospital and They Came From Eekum Seekum) he had written and directed before. Devouring various operas and works of poetry, Ellis’ interest was piqued by a particularly unique piece of writing- a Chinese harlequin novel, charmingly entitled Prayer Mat of the Flesh. Said to contain “wonderfully funny doses of human coitus,” the bookwould go on to provide Dragon with its unique sexual undertones that were mentioned before after its initial read. While the play in itself is not overtly sexual per se, the concept of sexuality gets married and blended into the definition of love, serving as a pivotal theme for the show’s plot. Equally unique is the location where a substantial portion of this play written. “A third of this play was written at the [Dartmouth pub and restaurant] Celtic Corner. It was crazy- while rugby dudes were screaming at the TV, I was sitting by the fireplace, writing my Chinese love ballad.”

Ellis is clearly a writer who has learned from the experience of live-reading and the art of revision. Following its debut, Ellis took a six-month hiatus from his work in order to gain clarity; to get a sense of direction of where he wanted to take his play. Upon his return to the script, Ellis describes his re-draft as a complete overhaul, in which original characters were either altered or removed entirely. Black Dragon Mountain now features a more well-balanced cast where all characters have equal weight. Every character has a back story and is fleshed out. Ellis consistently emphasizes the importance of entertainment above all else and that humour is the easiest way of building a rapport with viewers. Referencing famous playwright, Tennessee Williams, Roy quotes “I’d rather put a gun on stage than bore the audience.”

The end result of this two year venture is a newly polished Black Mountain Dragon, which takes place in 13th century China. A classic-coming of age story, we meet our protagonist Shanyang, a young Buddhist apprentice toiling under the tutelage of his master and mentor, Lonely Summit. Perched atop an isolated mountain, Shanyang is able to look directly down into a closeby village where he sees a young woman, White Lotus, who w is betrothed to the Emperor. Enamored, our protagonist prepares to forsake everything to be with her. Boasting many laughs and thrilling reveals, Shanyang sets out to discover what exactly has led him down that mountain; is it basic lust calling or something greater and meaningful?

Like the classic Peking Opera, the supporting stock characters are here in spades; Madame Jang- owner of a decomposing brothel, Mandy- the anachronistic Singsong courtesan, and Kun Lun- the bandit.

Directed by Stephanie Kinkade, the arrival of Ellis’ Peking-inspired work is expected to be well received here on the Halifax stage. Taking place at the Bus Stop Theatre, Roy states that the “black-box” setup boasts the perfect venue the starkness his play demands.  With topical issues, lascivious language, and beautiful costumes and makeup, you’ll want to be sure to check this original performance out.

Thursday Nov 12 @ 8pm
Friday Nov 13 @ 8pm
Saturday Matinee Nov 14 @ 2pm
Saturday Nov 14 @ 8pm
Sunday Matinee Nov 15 at 4:30pm
Tuesday Nov 17 @ 8pm
Wednesday Nov 18 @ 8pm

To reserve your seat, click this link: www.eventbrite.ca/e/black-dragon-mountain-tickets-18812391369