Popular TV host Hua Shao plays a salary man whose penchant for non-confrontation is subverted by his wife, played by singer-turned-actress Wan Fang.
A comedy on how the economy impacts the people has particular relevance to modern China. Raymond Zhou praises the production for infusing the goofy with the insightful.
The versatility of Performance Workshop and Magnificent Culture Co has been proven beyond any doubt with their production of Dario Fo's madcap comedy I Won't Pay! I Won't Pay! on the heels of the elegant and exalted eight-hour epic A Dream Like a Dream.
Essentially a revival with subtle connections to the present day, the Chinese-language production of I Won't Pay! I Won't Pay! (aka Can't Pay? Won't Pay! in English) was first presented in 1997 in Taiwan. The Asian financial crisis became the sparkle that brought out not just uproarious laughter, but the relevancy of the play. Adapted by director DingNai-Cheng into local situations, the farce incorporated social issues of Taiwan in away few foreign plays could match.
The new production does not move the action to the Chinese mainland, but it touches on the biggest curse of China's middle class, i.e. skyrocketing housing prices. When the main character Hua launches into a lamentation at the climax, he gives voice to a whole generation, if not a whole nation, who feels belittled by the colossal strides of the times. And that speech also gives unusual depth to an otherwise roller-coaster ride of fun and hilarity.
It is amazing that Performance Workshop's works, helmed by the esteemed master Stan Lai and presented on the mainland by Wang Keran and his Magnificent Culture, have an uncanny way of balancing low comedy and high concept, infusing the mundane with the sublime, taking aesthetic risks yet never falling into the pit of sentimentalism. Sure, the seed is from a Nobel-winning, socially conscious playwright, but Ding's touch of magic－not to say her immaculate sense of timing and pacing－has made it blossom so luxuriantly that it feels perfectly at home in the garden of Performance Workshop and the millions of Chinese fans who stroll in it.
A cast of five includes four Performance Workshop veterans and one newcomer. Hua Shao, host of the Chinese edition of The Voice, parlays his newfound TV fame into a role that does not need the speed of patter, for which he is nationally renowned, but a sense of groundedness and a degree of tolerance of the status quo typical of many in China. He is averse to any action or behavior that can be perceived as disturbing the ostensible peace and calm of society. However, he is swept away in the undercurrents of exploitation and greed from the powers-that-be. As such, this reluctant rebel may stand for many who, in the Chinese tradition, "go up to the mountain for rebellion" only when every other means is exhausted.
Hua is contrasted with his wife, played by Wan Fang with a high wattage of humanity, a woman who has to make ends meet with a middle-class salary, and with his dim-witted colleague and neighbor, played by Yan Nan, who acts as Hua's unvarnished instinct, or "id" in Freudian parlance.
But Wei Yi-Cheng steals the show with a tableau of five supporting characters who make up a sketch of society at large. Each one has such a distinct style of speaking and acting, let alone look and personality, that there's no danger of mixing them up.
Yet, each is funny in his own way, especially the cop who reminds me of all those young men critical of the establishment but fight for a chance to get into the civil service as if it's the best job in the world, and also, the delivery guy with a coffin.
Does the coffin portend something? It seems only a prop for comedy. I Won't Pay! I Won't Pay! is not a brooding piece with layers of meaning. Rather, it is a cry in the dark-OK, shall we say smog－that vents your frustrations. It is cathartic at the most fundamental level.
The play is to run in the following cities: Shenzhen, Dec 14-15; Shanghai, Dec 21-22; Chengdu, Dec 27-28; Hefei, Jan 4; Beijing, Jan 9-11; and Hangzhou, Jan 19.
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