'Perchance' to dream

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A unique theater collaboration uses hat boi to put a new face on a Shakespearean classic.

What do you get when you mix barking trees, a magician conjuring up spells, a forest goddess falling in love with a monkey and hat boi traditional northern and central Vietnamese theater?

The NEWS theater group's version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

It was definitely not your average Shakespeare.

"We're bringing in a work by Shakespeare, but we didn't tell the story in a conventional way. We try to get at the essence of the story and find a way to express it in a visceral way, using big movement," says Nguyen Nghieu Khai Thu, one of the two artistic directors of the performance at the College of Stage and Cinema's World Youth Theater Sunday.

Khai Thu, who is currently studying for a master's degree in dramatic literature in the US, headed the project with Cliff Moustache, an artist who runs a theater group in Norway called the Nordic Black Theater, which recently performed Romeo and Juliet set to hip hop music.

Together they created the NEWS movement theater group, bringing together professional performers from Vietnamese television and the HCMC Hat Boi Art Theater, as well as students from the college.

The two creative minds were not interested in simply retelling a story that's been told countless times. They wanted to recreate it, using the talents, artistic sensibilities and life experiences of the Vietnamese performers.

To do that, they used principles of a modern theater form called movement theater, which emphasizes creative expression over adhering to a specific form, often resulting in something altogether different than everyday theater audiences are used to.

"It's not realism, it's finding another mode to express the story and feelings, that's not an exact reflection of reality," says Thu.

The unique rehearsal process was key to coaxing a different kind of performance out of their actors. They didn't just pull out the old Bard's text and go to work. In fact, they threw out the text altogether. Relying on only an understanding of their characters and simple scene descriptions, the actors used improvisation to recreate the play, using their own words and movements to express the feelings of the characters.

"A lot of [the actors] are really good at improv, as they're so good at hai," said Thu, referring to a popular form of stage comedy which often requires actors to think up lines on the spot.

One of the goals of the directors was to make familiar, traditional forms come alive with new and creative applications.

So they incorporated elements of the highly-stylized hat boi from northern and central Vietnam. The unique movements of hat boi gave Shakespeare a particularly, well, Vietnamese feel to it.

"I found that the traditional forms could enrich the types of movements in movement theater, and movement theater helps us think about traditional forms in a new way," says Thu. "Often hat boi has to represent Vietnamese culture in a really strict way, and we're trying to think about ways for it to work for an audience today."

In every element of the performance, the directors encouraged the actors to find a form of expression that spoke to them. The final production didn't only use hat boi, but elements of other traditional forms as well, such as cai luong from southern Vietnam and dan ca folk music.

Each performer found a unique way to express his or herself.

As Lysander and Demetrius, both drunk from a magic love spell, squared off over Helena, they fought in a style recognizable from wuxia martial arts films.

"We really tried to push them to create and bring their own expressive movements," says Thu.

The result was a vibrant and unfettered performance. Watching the forest goddess prancing in the throes of love, teasing the monkey who was all too happy to play along, was unforgettable.

The performers did not simply interpret an artistic work, they developed new forms of expression for a timeless story. They became collaborators, if you will, with Shakespeare.

And that's pretty good for one night's dream.

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