Look Who's Cross-talking Tonight
A Combination of Melancholy and Humor - A New Type of Comedy
On September 30, 1989, the Performance Workshop premiered Look Who's Cross-talking Tonight, the long-awaited sequel to the pioneering 1985 “crosstalk” work The Night We Became Hsiang-Sheng Comedians. Whereas the previous work used the classical stand-up comedy form of crosstalk (hsiang-sheng or xiangsheng) to deal with the death of tradition, this new work set up an extended on-stage xiangsheng dialogue between a Taiwan and a mainland man, dealing with the contrasts and similarities between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits after 40 years of separation.
In the bustling Hua-tu Nightclub setting of the previous play, the two Masters of Ceremony are introducing the highlight act of the evening: to reflect the recent lifting of travel restrictions between Taiwan and mainland China, the Nightclub has flown in one of the true masters of the comic art of “crosstalk” from China to perform. However, on cue, the Master fails to appear. He is perhaps hopelessly lost in Taipei traffic. His apprentice, who has traveled with him, comes on stage. Since the show must go on, the mainland man improvises with one onstage performer while the other goes to search for the Master. Thus two comedians, one from Taiwan, one from the mainland, are forced to perform together on stage, and as their comic routines progress, the serious themes of the destruction of Chinese values and the devastation of the past 40 years begin to emerge.
The play broke records for number of performances and audience numbers, performing in large theatres for 72 performances, including international dates in Singapore, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. The issue of the audio recording also became an event of the recording world, quickly attaining 4 platinum status.
Script: Collective creation led by Stan Lai
Director: Stan Lai
Cast: Lee Li-chun as Yen Gui; Chin Shih-chieh as Bai Tan; Chen Li-hua as Zheng Zhuan
Scenes and Lighting Design: Samuel Wang
Costumes: Pamela Chin
Producer: Nai-chu Ding
World Premiere: September 30, 1989, National Arts Hall, Taipei
Toured Cities: Taichung, Kaohsiung, Tainan, Chungli, Keelung, Hsinchu, Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York
Anywhere else, the work of the troupe's Berkeley-trained author-director Stan Lai would be regarded as boldly experimental, But in Taiwan, where little theatre groups proliferate, the Workshop looks relatively staid and upmarket by comparison....
“Look Who's Cross-Talking” played for five weeks in Taipei, a record run by Taiwan standards....
Lai's “Look Who's Cross-Talking” is a cerebral three-man political cabaret in the stand-up comedy style of an Old Peking teahouse. The play acidly etches the parallels between the face-saving hypocracies of Nationalist Taiwan and the murderous righteousness of communist China... “Look Who's Cross-Talking” is a frank confrontation of two raucous rap-masters from opposite sides of the strait.... Taiwan has once again proved that it boasts the most Chinese-speaking world today....
Mainland China, though, will not get to see “Look Who's Cross-Talking” ─ at least not on the heels of the show's Hong Kong engagement as hoped by its promoters.
That hope, which remained alive right up to the week before the troupe left for Hong Kong was based on the reaction of a few mainland Chinese officials who saw the show on its earlier tour to Singapore. The Chinese, including representatives of the Central Drama Academy in Peking, enthused that the Performance Workshop production deserved a wider audience on the mainland. Lai heard this ─ perhaps naively ─ as an invitation and put his Hong Kong theatrical agent on the case. It seemed, after all, a natural fit.
Xiang sheng is already vastly popular on the mainland, where its mass-entertainment auspices shield it from the cruder ministrations of the cultural commissars. According to Chin Shih-chieh, one of the Performance Workshop xiang sheng players, mainland artists are unrivalled at such traditional xiang sheng techniques as dialects, rapid-fire patter and vocal sound effects. These devices all come under the rubric of "stuffing the bundle" - xiang sheng parlance for the build-up of a routine.
Only at the end of the skit do they "pop the bundle," or deliver the punch-line. For all their technical skills, Chin says, mainland xiang sheng artists cannot allow themselves to "pop the bundle" too pointedly. And they must stick to isolated vignettes, rather than attempting anything so ambitious as a full-length xiang sheng play such as “Look Who's Cross-Talking”.
The distinctive feature of the Performance Workshop show is that the actors remain in the same roles over the course of several successive scenes that are thematically related and strung together by a plot of sorts. Not that there is much to the story line: a mainland comedian, scheduled to make a precedent-setting appearance in a Taiwan bistro, fails to show up, leaving his flunky and the nightclub's Taiwanese master of ceremonies to fill the time.
They compare notes about attempts - successful or abortive - to flee the mainland for Taiwan. Then the Taiwanese spiels off a stream of Red-baiting slogans that he memorized for his grade school elocution contests. Does the mainland have any such contests, he wonders.
Well, yes, the mainlander replies. But it is pan-Chinese in scope and the contest is perpetually ongoing. Winners get to be communist party chairman. Losers disappear for years. The contest is called "political struggle."
The xiangsheng duo plays at example after example in which the "struggle victim" never wins. The attacker always bests him with vitriolic doublespeak. This was reportedly one of the two scenes the Peking authorities found too sensitive to allow the Performance Workshop production into the mainland.
The other objectionable scene was the last one, which was all about the supposed mainland vogue for grave-robbing. Not only does this clear away needed lands, but it also provides a steady store of saleable antiquities.
The mainlander, in classic xiang sheng patter, describes a grave-robbing expedition he once joined. Layer after layer, they probed - through precious artifacts, ruined cities, stacked cadavers. The symbolism gets a bit heavy-handed, but the manic momentum of the recital carries it off. At last, they come to a chamber so jewel-encrusted that it seems hung with stars.
The walls are covered with frescoes of the most ancient Chinese ancestors. They are all smiling. The rainstorm raging above ground is so far off that the thunder is only a distant rumour. But water trickling into the chamber begins to melt the frescoes.
The grave robbers locate the master tomb. No time to stand on ceremony. Inside, what should they find but a bundle? So they do what comes naturally and "pop the bundle." Except this time nobody laughs.
——Lincoln Kaye, "Acts of Defiance," Far Eastern Economic Review, 7/26/90