Smile Politely

Trying to reach The Other Shore at Krannert Center

Banned from production in China just days before its initial performance, Chinese Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian’s “Other Shore” continues Illinois Theatre’s series about  “Freedom of Expression” with Buddhist themes of freedom and individualism.  The central character in the play, known only as “the man”, wrestles with these issues – with individualism versus the collective — in various forms throughout each act.

Naming a character “the man” may strike some as a limited representation of humanity, but this play began as an acting exercise, causing each performer to change roles quickly using improvisational techniques. Due to these origins, the main role is played by multiple performers, without restrictions. Similarly, the original format of the production was written to allow performance in almost any small location — a living room, for instance — with minimal lighting and props.  A smaller venue gives the show a more intimate and personal feel, and leaves much of the artistry up to audience interpretation as “the man” completes his journey of enlightenment to the elusive other shore.

To this purpose, Krannert’s production will be staged in the Studio Theatre, with design inspiration coming from Gao’s paintings. The black box creates space for actors to create the vignettes in a thought-provoking way, and the design elements have “transformed [the theatre] into a place where anything can happen. A world filled with sound, color, and action,” says guest director Sandra Zielinski. Citing her own entry point into the play as these visual works as well as his poetry, informing her interpretations, so it is no wonder that they ended up onstage alongside the actors.

While some people hold a bleak image of experimental theatre, the director assures us that this production has room for variety within its script. As a series of vignettes, there are opportunities for oppression, resistance, facing the consequences of individual action, and the realization of the extent of one’s power. It also affords, she emphasizes, hope. “The hope of the piece is that man still fights through the ‘muck and the mire’ by the mere fact that s/he keeps searching for answers through compassion and action. This play will make you think and smile and maybe even giggle.”

Gao insists that his work is apolitical, examining “the man’s” thoughts and actions as an individual apart from all others, but Zielinski might beg to differ. When asked if it is possible for a human to be apolitical, she replies, “…someone somewhere is against what we believe or how we state a position. We may say we are not political, but we cannot escape our actions within the world around us.” After her visit to China in the late eighties, nearly concurrent with this script’s completion, she notes that this story about seeking liberation from controlling forces is best considered from within the political climate of his country while he was growing up.

Whatever you know about Maoist China, whatever you think you know about experimental theatre, and whatever causes you to choose a play to go see or not, the director encourages: “Put aside what you thought it would be, simply let the thoughts bubble, and, perhaps, re-examine our own life and actions.”


The Other Shore will be showing in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts’ Studio Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 22nd — Saturday, October 24th and Tuesday, October 27th — Saturday, October 31st. There will be a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. on November 1st. Tickets start at $25, but special pricing is available for seniors, students, youth and groups. 

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