This Magical Phoenix Flew

When I was little, the most exciting things that could ever happen at school were: a. the day that our books arrived from the Book Order catalog; b. the day that our class got to skip school to go to the Book Fair that the teachers set up in the Art Room; c. the day that a touring theatre show came to our school; and d. the day that we got to go to Neptune Theatre for the entire afternoon to see a production with an entire auditorium filled with children from schools all around Halifax.
With those fond memories, it is always delightful to sit, as an adult, among a crowd of children in assorted school uniforms at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People and feed off the excited chatter of children as thrilled as I was to be spending an afternoon seeing a play rather than at school doing math. And so, at 10:15am last Friday I shared the experience of The Forbidden Phoenix with just this sort of audience.
The Forbidden Phoenix is a musical with book and lyrics by Edmontonian playwright Marty Chan, with music by Robert Walsh and directed by the incomparable Ron Jenkins. As with most theatre written for children, Marty Chan wanted to tell a story that speaks strongly about a specific issues (in this case racism) and to tell a story firmly rooted in Canadian history (in this case, the story of the “bachelor men,” Chinese immigrants who came to Canada to help build the transcontinental railroad). The difficulty that playwrights encounter, as Chan mentions in his Playwright’s Note, is how to tackle such dense subject matter without become didactic and boring. I’m sure we can all agree that the last thing children need is to be introduced to terrible theatre.
The balance in The Forbidden Phoenix was instantly perfect, as Chan decided to use an allegory to depict his historical tale, the Chinese myth of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, and Jenkins rooted the production in brilliant, stunning movement, tumbling, climbing, stage fighting, and choreography that kept the audience continually captivated, enchanted and spellbound. It reminded me of those great television programs that I used to watch in the very early 90s that were live-action, with actors dressed in intricate animal costumes, that were filmed as though they were cartoons, with lots of action and gymnastics so that I could never figure out whether what I was seeing was real or fake. The mixture of acrobatics and clown, with the bright costumes and makeup made The Forbidden Phoenix just as magical as a really well done cartoon. The show boasted of some of the best fight choreography that I have ever seen, directed by Adrian Young and expertly executed by Colin Maier, Jonathan Purvis, Siobhan Richardson and Jeff Yung.
Richard Lee was phenomenal as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, who is deported and separated from his beloved son, heartbreakingly well played by Shannon Kook-Chun, by the evil Empress Dowager, played with cold flair by Lori Nancy Kalamanski (who spends the entire show suspended magnificently in the air). The relationship between Sun Wukong and his son was so endearing and sweet, and in a moment of horrific, unexpected violence, the audience of children seated around me were so instantly horrified, a wave of shock rippled through the space . Throughout the entire play, the children were so quiet, one could have heard a pin drop.
From a scholar’s perspective, I felt that it was most interesting to see Canadian history being reinterpreted and appropriated into Chinese myth, as so often Eastern stories are adopted (and sometimes bastardized) by the West. Horne, played wonderfully by Michael Dufays, was a character firmly rooted in Eastern tradition, although he was representing racist Canadian corporations and policies. That being said, the imagery was mixed, as there was a walloping powerful moment reminescent of the Canadian Heritage Moment where the Chinese railroad workers are taking dynamite into a tunnel to clear the track.
Chan is a skilled writer, and although I am not sure The Forbidden Phoenix surpasses the realm of Children’s Theatre, it is absolutely well-crafted and is rooted in honest integrity and strong, complex characters and at no time does it patronize or belittle its audience. I was especially impressed with a scene that Chan wrote after Sun Wukong thinks that he has murdered his son where he discovers alcohol and how nicely it numbs his heartbreak. This scene is not homiletic, but extremely poignant and subtle, and it adds to the richness of the story and roots Sun Wukong with us in his flawed humanity. I find that Edmontonian playwrights (to make a huge generalization) seem to have this wry way with words, that tend to pepper their plays, especially the ones for children, with a gentle, yet sophisticated, sense of humor. For example, when Sun Wukong meets the Phoenix (played with ultimate sweetness by Nadine Villasin) she says to him: “I renew hope and end desperation” to which he responds: “I am Sun Wukong, and I don’t have such lofty goals.” Chan never speaks down to the children, but encourages them to rise into his magical world as he knows he can. I truly believe that one of the greatest things a grownup can do for a child is to have faith in them, and to believe that they will be able to understand. Often they will be able to see things in art far more interesting than what the grownup had intended for them.
There were a few sparse moments that were met with confusion (by grownups and children alike), I wasn’t entirely sold on the fabric being used to represent the baby Phoenix, but in general, I found The Forbidden Phoenix to be entirely magical and stunning and I am so glad that Jenkins and Chan and the fine people at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton chose to share this lovely show with Toronto and the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People.
Sadly, the show closed on March 11th, 2009, I wish I had gotten a chance to see it earlier in its run so that I could have helped to promote it. I find that Ron Jenkins (who also directed The Black Rider at Tarragon last fall) creates purely fascinating works of art and I always anticipate seeing his shows with great ferver and excitement. He not only makes me want to be a better theatre artist, but he also makes me want to be a better person. I find his creativity refreshing, inspiring and invigorating.
That said, if you will be in Edmonton, Alberta between March 28th, 2009 and April 19th, 2009, you should rush to the Citadel’s Rice Theatre and check out a show that was written and is being directed by Jenkins called Extinction Song . Here is a quote from the website: “Meet James. Seven years old, he has escaped to a fantasy world where he is being raised by wolves. Every day is a new adventure until, frightened they are on the verge of becoming extinct, James and the wolves concoct a plan to save themselves. Extinction Song is a funny, tender and heartbreaking account of a child’s way of coping with the trouble world around him.”
This one-man-play features a tour de force performance by Edmonton native, that fixture in the Toronto theatre scene, Ron Pederson (Canadian Stage Rocky Horror and Little Shop of Horrors, Founding member of the National Theatre of the World (Impromptu Splendor and The Carnegie Hall Show) etc.) If you’re in Toronto, or anywhere else across the country, keep your eyes peeled, because I am positive that this is not the last that you will hear of this show. Those of us not in Edmonton won’t want to miss out!

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