Reforming the reformed

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A cai luong artist mixes genres to preserve a traditional art form

A scene from cai luong play Mot ong hai ba (One man, two women), which premiered at Kim Chau Theater in Ho Chi Minh City last month. Playwright Linh Huyen hopes the new play will draw more public interest and revive the traditional art form.

Linh Huyen does not care to cut her losses and run.

But the cai luong artiste and playwright is willing to make drastic changes to preserve the dying folk art form.

A traditional cai luong (known as reformed theater or modern folk opera) performance takes about three hours, but when Huyen held the premier of Mot ong hai ba (One man, two women) at her newly opened Kim Chau Theater in Ho Chi Minh City last month, the show lasted just an hour and a half.

The play had theatrical elements as well as more comedy in it. In fact, actors and actresses talked more and sang less than in a typical cai luong performance.

These are considered major, bold changes, given that cai luong is art form that is melodramatic and drawn-out. Huyen's play has a faster rhythm and the participation of comedians heavily dilutes the melodrama.

 Huyen said she introduced the changes based on a long study into audience's tastes and other factors.

"As cai luong is dying, people who are devoted to the art need to do something to revive it," the playwright said.

Huyen's initial attempts have gained appreciation from critics and audiences alike.

Complimenting the cast's acting, the attire and stage design, Hoang Van Cuong, a culture researcher, said: "In general, the experience is a breath of fresh air for cai luong."

Thanh Tuyen, a member of the audience, said it was a strange experience for her as well, but a positive one. She felt it let the audience enjoy basic features of cai luong without making them feel "tired and sad like traditional cai luong pieces."

Bao Quoc, a veteran artist, said the new style was once tested in the 1960s with two plays Di bien mot minh (Going to the sea alone), and Con gai chi Hang (Hang's daughter), both staged by his parents.

It had surprised and received good responses from audiences then, he said.

But it died out at the beginning of 1990s.

While it is still too soon to say whether Huyen's experience will be successful or not, the artist said: "After the first show, I noticed that it captured the interest of many people in the audience, which gives me enough encouragement to continue with the way I chose."

This is not the first time that Huyen, who has been called "the woman who's reinventing cai luong," has experimented with the traditional folk opera.

Last year, she won critical acclaim for Ba chua tho nom (The queen of Nom poetry), which smoothly introduced elements of cheo (traditional operetta), ca tru (an ancient genre of chamber music featuring female vocalists, with origins in northern Vietnam) and hat xam (Vietnamese folk music once popular in the northern region) into a cai luong play.

In for a penny"¦

Huyen invested over VND1 billion (US$46,614) in Ba chua tho nom, and lost VND250 million ($12,159), Saigon Tiep Thi newspaper reported.

The loss did not discourage her from pursuing her dream, and she opened Kim Chau, a theater dedicated to cai luong, in April.

Huyen was quoted as saying that she loses about VND20 million ($972.76) every time a show is performed at the theater. "The theater has 600 seats but there are just 50 people at each show. I will try to keep it alive for as long as I can."

Besides Mot ong hai ba, Huyen is also staging a cai luong play for children Tran Quoc Toan ra quan (Tran Quoc Toan enters the battlefield).

Featuring Tran Quoc Toan (1267-1285), a well-known Vietnamese hero of the Tran Dynasty (1225-1397), the play has a cast of young actors and actresses who have attended classes at Huyen's house over the past year. They are between 15-25 years old and come from different backgrounds. The actors include students, lawyers, tour guides and even business managers, according to Saigon Tiep Thi.

Huyen is also studying ways to market cai luong at schools. She wants to sell tickets at VND50,000 ($2.44), provide students with transport to the theater and back, or even have flexible timetables for the show.

She said she hopes that children will have the opportunity to enjoy cai luong before it becomes "a strange word" to them.

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