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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Theatre |
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Two Belles in Love: A Romance — Preview

Performed by students of THEA 323, directed by Intercultural Theatre Practices expert Dr. Megan Evans, and written originally by Chinese playwright Li Yu, Two Belles in Love: A Romance deals with societal stigma towards the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals to love openly. Despite this, it promises to be “sweet, funny, and compellingly relevant for a contemporary audience.” I spoke to director Megan Evans and performer Finnian Nacey to see how they intend to hit that sweet spot.

 

Two Belles in Love looks at same-sex relationships through the historical framework of Imperial China, written some 350 years ago by Yi Lu. In what ways has its content retained relevance to our modern experiences?

Megan: While some of the characters object to the belles’ relationship, many support it; in particular, there are “Fragrance Gods” who oversee and help the belles toward a happy ending. With ongoing prejudice and stigma in New Zealand and much fiercer forms of discrimination and persecution against the LGBTQIA+ community in other parts of the world, the play provides valuable practice to imagine a world in which the balance of power tips so strongly in favour of acceptance.

Finnian: Like its title says, Two Belles is about love. There’s the romantic love between the two belles, but there’s also exploration of familial love and the love between friends as well. It’s a universal theme that we can all relate to. The same-sex relationships within the show just go to showcase that love knows no gender, and that love between two women or men has been deeply entrenched within society and art for over hundreds of years

 

Finnian, you describe the “honesty” with which the production depicts LGBTQIA+ issues in the press notes — can you elaborate on that?

Finnian: A lot of media depicting same-sex relationships focuses on negative reactions towards them. While this is a major and pressing issue, there’s also a lot of love and acceptance out there in the world, so it’s nice to see a show that focuses on positivity without ignoring the objections that some have.

 

Two Belles sticks out as a play that deals with a lot of potentially sensitive issues but also takes the form of a comedy. Considering this bipolarity, what form did the original rehearsals take? Were you more focused on getting a historical context or nailing the comedic elements of the piece?

Megan: Our performance style is not realism. In Xìqǔ (Chinese opera), as in Shakespeare, a kind of historical “every time” and geographical “every where” is the setting of the play. The Imperial China setting is important because polygamy was legal and commonplace, and so Li Yu exploits it for comic effect. But historical accuracy is not a goal. Our early rehearsals have focused on the action and the theatrical potential of the story. We have been monitoring the possible political implications of our choices, but mostly we have been looking for the best way this company of actors can tell this story.

 

What challenges/opportunities has the dual casting of THEA 323 students had for the production? Do you feel the two performances are different as a result?

Megan: I experienced many productions with a dual cast at University of Hawaii, where we had resident Asian performance teachers. I really enjoyed the opportunity to build a role together with someone else. And it isn’t just the actors; the musicians are also contributing to each character’s portrayal. While sometimes it feels as though we are having to solve every problem twice, I more often find that when the second group takes the stage they have learned heaps from watching the first group.

 

Can you tell me about the set design — how did you go about recreating Imperial China in Kelburn?

Finnian: Our set designers, Emma Katene and Nicole Topp-Annan, have done a flat-out fantastic job. They’ve gone for a more impressionistic version of Imperial China. The conversation about replicating the work has been at the forefront of our minds for this play, as there’s the possibility of appropriation and disrespect that we must be mindful of. As we can’t respectfully replicate any of the traditional Chinese styles, choosing a more simple, symbolic design for the set was helpful in realising the world of the play. So the set is quite minimalist, but it’s punctuated with vibrant colours and intricate backdrops; everything on stage is used to its full potential.

 

Which characters are your favourite in the play?

Megan: I don’t have a favourite character; what I love about the production is the contrasts and surprises. We are integrating many tones and qualities of performance, another characteristic that was inspired by Xìqǔ.

Finnian: I have a soft spot for all the characters, but I love the Fragrance Gods; it’s awesome to see a same-sex relationship get the support of deities, which isn’t a narrative often shown. I think their cheeky interactions are a comedic highlight of the play, and their choreography also demonstrates a lot of Chinese influences as well. They’re a treat!

 

Do you think the inclusion of modern music with Chinese influences, as composed by Ailise Beales, impacted the original meaning of the play?

Megan: Definitely, Ailise’s songs have brought a contemporary edge to the production. She writes lovely melodies, but also is a gifted lyricist — they’re sweet and clever, with many very funny moments.

Finnian: Ailise’s lyrics also allow the audience and performers to see into the characters’ heads a lot more. It’s great to get a look at the inner workings of the supporting characters, as well as the two belles. The songs are also really catchy! We spend a lot of time just singing them together outside of rehearsal. I think the audience is going to have quite a few numbers stuck in their heads for days afterwards.

 

For a person who may have never seen theatre at VUW, what is ONE thing about the production that they need to see in person and not just through Salient previews/reviews?

Megan: Early in the show, just after the belles have met for the first time, one of them sings the song “Your Perfume”. I have found it very moving each time I see it. Maybe it is something about letting this relationship between two women be taken both easily and seriously onstage, as normal and inspiring and worthy of a beautiful song.

Finnian: It’s tough to pick just one! I also love “Your Perfume”, but I think “Liuchun”, the maid’s cheeky little number about the two belles which is laden with double entendres and innuendo, is absolutely hilarious. Both Katherine Wisnewski and Cassidy Cruz (Liuchun’s actors) do a stellar job of it, and it has to be seen to be believed.

 

Two Belles In Love: A Romance opens 7.30PM on May 24, in Studio 77, Fairlie Terrace. You can find tickets at https://www.eventfinda.co.nz/2017/two-belles-in-love-romance/wellington, or you can buy at the door ($8 student, $16 standard).

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