Soul of Shaolin
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 14, 2009
Soul of Shaolin is the first show from the People's Republic of China to play on Broadway, which marks it as an event of some kind of significance. (Its opening was met with proclamations by both Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson, for example.)
It is described by Executive Director Xue Weijun in a program note as "a new work of Kung Fu-based storytelling" and in the synopsis elsewhere in the program as "a brand new form of artistic work." The former feels closer to the mark, but still overstates the case. In Soul of Shaolin, a company of about two dozen performers are used to tell the story of Hui Guang, who was separated from his mother when he was just a baby, rescued and raised by the monks at the Shaolin Temple and taught the ways of Shaolin Kung Fu, and then reunited with his mother years later. The story is told almost entirely wordlessly (there's a bit of narration at the beginning and end of each act). Mime or ballet-like dance and movement is used to move the narrative forward where necessary. The vast majority of the running time is given over to demonstrations of Shaolin Kung Fu, sometimes in battle/fight sequences that move the action forward, and most of the time in set pieces that demonstrate the performers' prowess.
The minimalist, simple-minded approach to the storytelling ultimately detracts from the piece. Even though the accomplishments of these Kung Fu practitioners are often astonishing, there's a sameness to what they show us that makes Soul of Shaolin border on the monotonous in places. There's also a complete lack of emotional engagement, and while I recognize that some of that may be a reflection of the Buddhist ideas that underlie Shaolin Kung Fu, that doesn't make this two hour experience particularly compelling. There are occasional thrilling moments: some genuinely exciting martial arts action sequences give off some adrenalin; and the seemingly superhuman feats of Yu Fei, Dong Yingbo, and Wang Sen, who portray Hui Guang at various ages, can take the breath away, as when the last-named balances his entire recumbent body on the points of four spears.
But overall, Soul of Shaolin is only fitfully successful as theatrical spectacle, with a disappointingly dour design and an uninspired pop-inflected score by Zhou Chenglong.
It certainly doesn't feel like the basis of a momentous cross-cultural exchange. When The Grand Kabuki or the Bolshoi Ballet comes to the United States, you get the feeling that you are witnessing something not only representative of another country's art, but something deeply treasured. Soul of Shaolin, which gives over half the bios in its program to business people (and none at all to the performers!) feels more like a commercial transaction than an artistic event—and that feels, to me, like a squandered opportunity.