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Two Rural Dogs Hit the Urban Streets of China

From THAT'S SHANGHAI January 2008 Print & Web Edition


By Mina Choi


"They tell me that they don’t understand my play, but love watching it. And that’s exactly what I want,” says Meng Jinghui, the celebrated director of the theatrical phenomenon Two Dogs, arguably one of the most successful theater productions of the season.

The play first opened for two weeks in September 2007 at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center and had a second run in December, both of which sold out in a record 24 hours. Riding high on the buzz, there’s talk of a third run in March. Two Dogs is a collaboration between Meng, a young Beijing director revered for his intense and engaged directing style and his two favorite actors, Chen Minghao and Liu Shaoye. All three contributed to the story with countless improvisations and numerous performances which haven’t lessened its energy.

In the stripped-down set, the two actors address the audience directly in a fashion reminiscent of the old Qing Dynasty tradition of xiangsheng (cross-talk). The two riff off each other and even encourage the audience to get their mobile phones out and take a few snapshots before the lights dim.
What emerges is a tale of two dogs from the countryside as they experience big-city life from the ground up. The two dogs are trampled, mistreated and abused, but do their best to survive in what is best termed a dog-eat-dog world. That said, the two dogs, named “Lai Fu” (Come Fortune) and “Wang Cai,” (Get Fortune) are far from passive; they satirize fake medicine, second wives, shoddy construction and amateur singing contests. In one skit Wang Cai is put in jail and has to cope with some ferocious canine cellmates, the result of which is an equally ferocious parody of the urban pecking order. After clawing his way to the top, Wang Cai offers his own brand of justice, pummeling those below him.

The play’s popularity is derived from its hilarious social commentary on the phenomenon of the waidiren (those not from Shanghai). But Meng says it’s not that simple. “It’s really about people and how they process the growth in themselves and in their environment,” he explains.

Perhaps. But in the peals of laughter from the well-heeled white-collar audience there is a hint of discomfort and a sense that the waidiren allusion is too thinly veiled. Meng brings this aspect into relief during a scene where the two actors, sweating and outfitted in ragamuffin clothes, squeeze through the audience seats with huge bundles of belongings. The audience laughs, albeit a bit too heartily. However, they don’t cringe as they would on the train or the metro when a laborer passes by toting a huge shipidai plaid plastic bag.

This same dynamic continues when the two “dogs,” jingling coins in their hats, approach the audience for handouts. The audience laughs, after all this is just theater, and even dig into their pockets for money.

In many ways, Two Dogs is not unlike Edward Albee’s 1958 play, The Zoo Story, often hailed as “a confrontation between middle-class America and the outcasts of society.” Similarly, Two Dogs disabuses the audience of its smug position in society through very lively interaction. “It’s all about energy – that is the most important thing,” says Meng.

And it’s the energy that helps distract the audience from the play’s sobering theme. Regarding his success, Meng also takes a sober view. He feels that profit should not be a goal of the artist and disregards the box office takings as a matter of circumstance. “It’s not that my play is particularly good. It’s just that the other plays are so bad.”

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