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CURTAIN CALL: The Scandinavian Invasion
From THAT'S SHANGHAI July 2008 Print & Web Edition

By Mina Choi


The Nords are back, but this time, they’re armed with weapons of culture. June saw them coming in droves in theater productions that included everything from a stage version of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, produced by Ke Center, to seven different shows presented as part of the Danish Children’s Theater Festival, New Tales from Denmark.

The Children’s Theater Festival, backed by the Danish Consulate and held at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center was nicely timed to profit from National Children’s Day on June 1, but the number of empty seats made it clear that the festival could not have happened without funding from the Danish Ministry of Culture.

Open up the fancy brochure and you’ll find a long list of Danish arts funding bodies – and the whole thing hearkens back to the kind of “cultural-exchange” missions of Ping Pong Diplomacy.
It’s ironic that while Shanghai cultural institutions are just learning how to balance their books and produce more commercial fares, the Europeans, on the other hand, are showing what culture is really about – subsidies.

The plays had the feel of an amateur school production, attended by parents and relatives laughing politely at a few jokes in productions that really weren’t that funny. Except in this case, the performers were professional, adult actors. Which made me suspect that Danish Children’s Theater was a means for the socialist Danish government to keep the underemployed actors off the breadline.
Nevertheless, none of this seemed to bother the throngs of 6 year olds who were cackling at the clownish and slapstick antics of the actors. This new breed of children’s theater, which supposedly hailed from the Hans Christian Andersen tradition, made us yearn for the storyteller’s poignant and melancholy tales. Who can forget the heartbreak ending of The Little Match Girl or The Little Mermaid (never mind the Disney bastardization), or that wonderful and still very relevant allegory of The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Though the bulk of The New Tales from Denmark, was juvenile and ultimately shallow, one show did, however, make me sit up and notice: Maria Bonita.

The play is based on a true 1920s story of a gorgeous young girl who runs off to northern Brazil with a notorious bandit named Lampiao. Maria, who yearns to be more than a cobbler’s wife, finds her escape in the Robin-Hood figure of Lampiao, and becomes a legend in the process. Theater Batida told the story through song, dance, hand puppets and even giant human-sized puppets. In one very visceral scene a rich madam who used to torment Maria is tied up and blindfolded. Maria smacks her in the face and proceeds to tear off her limbs. Though the object of her assault is a giant puppet, it was impossible not to flinch. I felt gratified to see that children’s theater still lives on, un-lobotomized.
The Swedish import, Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, also served up a few flinch-worthy performances. The play details the brutal destruction of a marriage, the emotional warfare and the subsequent rapprochements. Written in 1973 as a television miniseries, Scenes was then re-edited into a film and then rewritten by Bergman himself as a stage play. Now directed by Zhou Ke, it has earned itself a new life in its Mandarin incarnation with passionate, albeit slightly too youthful, actors.

According to Zhou, the television series spawned many divorces in Sweden when it first aired. With divorce rate on the rise in China, maybe it’s not a bad time to import some themes from a 35-year old drama that coolly peers into a marriage in the process of unwinding. In some ways, Bergman, married five times himself, may be the harbinger of things to come.

June 2008, 1930's Sing-Song Nostalgia on the Bund (read)

May 2008, The Two Hamlets (read)

April 2008, Strippers and Princesses (read)

March 2008, Snow Storm and Bestiality (read)

February 2008, A Recap of the Spectacular Fall 2007 season (read)


For a complete list of Theater Articles by Mina Choi click HERE