Review: Bold and experimental, 'The Other Shore' doesn’t satisfy

Sometimes, you can reach too far. Such is the case with Kansas University Theatre’s production of “The Other Shore” by Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian. Surreal, abstract and high-minded, both the play and the production are bold but don’t quite make for a satisfying evening of theater. The show begins with a troupe of 11 actors coming onstage and deciding to play a game. They get ropes and then engage in several intellectual exercises about the nature of relationships symbolized by the connections the actors experience through holding opposite ends of the ropes. It all has a sort of Philosophy 101 feel to it.

Then, becoming childlike, they decide to cross a river to the other shore. They all takes turns imagining different aspects of this river, building their set as they go, placing rocks around the stage. Eventually, the river rages, and they struggle to make it to their destination.

Once they have made it, though, the play transforms into a surreal exploration of the nature of reality. It becomes a series of vignettes that explore individual aspects of how we perceive the world. Each actor takes on various roles making their work onstage as fluid as the action. If you’re looking for a story, you won’t find it in “The Other Shore.” It is quintessential experimental theater — using drama to push concepts. We see loss of innocence and learning to lie. We experience the tyranny of the majority and willful ignorance. Unrequited love, social intolerance of lust, and the suppression of individuality all make their appearances.

The ensemble cast does a fine job slipping from one role to the next. Director Alison Christy pulls fearless performances from all of them. Indeed, University Theatre should be commended for staging this play this late in the season. Most of the actors have held more standard roles in other productions this season, and seeing these recognizable faces take on something as experimental and ambitious as “The Other Shore” is a treat for regular attendees.

The technical aspects of the play are excellent as well. Transitions are flawlessly executed by the lighting crew, expertly directing the audience where to look by bringing lights up and down. Christy makes good use of levels and movement too by having her actors climb large structures, and staging the vignettes in varying locations. She makes full use of the tiny Inge Theatre, making it seem like a much bigger space than it is.

But as well executed as the show is, it still plays like a dramatized version of an Eastern Philosophy class. There is less story than there is situation. As a teaching tool in a classroom, each vignette would enhance a learning environment. Several of them are very powerful.

The first experience on the other shore involves one actor teaching language to the others. As they learn, they discover they can say both nice things and mean things. Eventually, the students kill the teacher — a powerful lesson on how harmful language can be when misused.

In another segment, one actor is told he has drawn a trump card, when he has not. He fights for the truth of what he knows and is tortured by the others until he recants. Gao’s reaction to the Orwellian nature of China’s Cultural Revolution is sharp and clear.

But as interesting and compelling as each of the situations is, strung together they add up to less than the sum of their parts. The play lasts an hour and 15 minutes, but it seems longer. At the end, one of the actors asks the others if they understood what they had just staged. He gets few affirmatives.

As an intellectual exercise, “The Other Shore” is interesting, and it is well staged and performed. But it doesn’t make for a satisfying theatrical experience.

“The Other Shore” continues April 15, 16 and 17. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. in the Inge Theatre on the KU campus. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.

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