Is Kaixin Mahua farcical theater or the savior of Chinese comedy?
The Spring Festival is an occasion to indulge your silly side. Apart from watching the CCTV Spring Festival Gala in its famous red-and-green color scheme or buying tickets to New Year blockbusters starring Jackie Chan and Wang Baoqiang, you can choose to go see Kaixin Mahua (开心麻花).
Unlike any other theater groups, Kaixin Mahua made their fame by producing plays made for the Lunar New Year. Though they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, their sheer commercial success means they can’t be overlooked when discussing the state of Chinese theater. Mahua has not only achieved impressive audience reach in individual performances, but have also been a huge success with producers of internet plays and play-adapted films. In 2015, the film adaptation of their play, Goodbye, Mr. Loser, gave them box office returns of over 1.4 billion RMB—to date, the most profitable Chinese film adapted from a play.
In rememberance of 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, Mahua’s play, Don’t Be Mad, Shakespeare! attempts to celebrate both the playwright and the Year of the Rooster.
The plot sounds enticing enough: A famous director is about to stage his play, Romeo and Juliet, when he receives a phone call that his granddaughter has been kidnapped. The “ransom” that the kidnappers demand is that the director adapt the play the way they want; he concedes.
The highlights of the play, according to Mahua’s synopsis, are “an alternative homage to Shakespeare,” an intervention from the “Hand of God” that disrupts the original plot, and a play within the play. “This is a play about theatrical rehearsals,” the homepage of Don’t Be Mad’s official website reads. “Mahua invites you to deconstruct the play from the perspective of the director.”
Such descriptions would certainly raise the expectations of an average theater-goer—the deconstruction of the 418-year-old script, the double-layered narration, and the characters’ possible rebellion against their tragic fate. It sounds like a subversive adaption that would be graciously forgiven by Shakespeare if he knew about it.
However, a true Mahua fan is usually not your average theater-goer. Mahua has a very young audience, mostly students and young white-collar workers, and its scripts are especially popular for university theaters to adapt. Mahua fans know exactly what to look for: An evening during which they can sit back and be entertained, without probing inquiries into art or human nature. They expect to laugh for two hours, and Mahua never fails them.
With Don’t Be Mad, as with all Mahua productions, taking the attitude of a true fan is the only way to enjoy it. The doubly-delineated narration quickly decomposes halfway through the play, leaving the plot to be driven by the characters of the troupe. The Shakespearian plot, sabotaged by the kidnapper, is left in an anarchic state, being rewritten by each member according to their own private motives. The play succeeds in that, as the story unfolds, the troupe members become real, flawed characters, whose personalities directly speak to the audience. With each of them bent on their own agenda, they easily create a tension that tirelessly fuels the story with fresh comic moments.
However, one has to admit that the play consists almost wholly of jokes and panders to the audience. The comedy, while funny enough, does not offer the kind of depth that a good farce ought to display.
That is why most of Mahua plays are outcasts in the realm of theater critique. Some viewers, lured to the theater by the advertisement of “an homage to Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary,” posted angry comments on rating and review-aggregator websites, and the play’s score out of 10 on Douban.com is only 6.9. However, Mahua fans are hardly perturbed. “Shut up and stay away,” one of them wrote. “I laughed until I had an eight-pack and that’s all I want. It’s a good play.”
Suffice to say, there is a hierarchy of audience-derision for Chinese theater genres. Crosstalk and Mahua are at the bottom of the pile; a little higher up are the controversial avant-garde and “experimental” works of commercially successful director Meng Jinghui, who is based at Beehive Theater on Beijing’s Second Ring Road. Looking down from the top of the pyramid is black box theater, even though most of the troupes and venues that specialize in this category, like the famous Penghao Theater hidden away in Nan Luoguxiang, have been financially struggling for years.
Mahua have no pretensions. In their synopses, they seem to always carefully avoid calling their theater productions “plays” (话剧, “dialogue performance”), and instead list them as “stage dramas” and “commercial theater.” At times, Mahua’s productions resemble a prolonged xiaopin, comic skit that usually appears on TV galas and with which Mahua have a profound association. In 2011, Mahua came to prominence nationwide by winning a xiaopin competition hosted by CCTV, and have collaborated with the Spring Festival Gala for four successive years from 2012 to 2015, producing eight xiaopin—a feat that has made them known to the mainstream as well as their loyal fans.
However, it would be unfair to reduce Mahua’s plays to xiaopin. While their plays have become synonymous with farce, the star performers that represent Mahua, such as Shen Teng and Ma Li, are respected comedians with great theatrical ambitions. When Shen was interviewed by CCTV about how he ranked the importance of films, plays, and xiaopin, he answered, “Play, film. And that’s it.”
In any case, there is no getting away from Mahua in Chinese contemporary theater. It is lamented by the public that comedy in China has been on a downward trajectory ever since the 1980s, and the great comedians of that era are still seen as unsurpassed. However, with Mahua’s vigor, their constant infusion of young blood, their deep pockets, and the artistic potential, it’s possible they could be the group that brings Chinese comedy back.
In a nation where modern theater has had but a relatively very short existence, Mahua have caused tens of thousands of young Chinese adults to opt for the stage over blockbuster films on their Friday nights. That’s serious progress.
Prepare to Be Entertained is a story from our issue, “Wildest Fantasy.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.