Hsiao Wenhua, MFA, Graduate Institute of Theatre Arts and Playwriting, Taipei National University of the Arts
Jade Y. Chen’s 2009 novel Mazu’s Bodyguards is a semi-autobiographical portrayal of three generations of the same family. The story unfolds against the background of recent Taiwanese history; in the absence of male characters, it specifically focuses on how this time of change and unrest was negotiated by women, both in their powerlessness and in the resilience of their maternal instinct.
In 2009 the National Theater hosted a performance of Mazu’s Bodyguards written and directed by Jade Y. Chen. Given the difficulties of boiling down into two hours of stage time a story of three generations, spanning almost seventy years and with frequently changing central characters, the stageplay focuses on the story’s first generation, portraying the intricate relationships between Miwa Ayako, her Taiwanese husband Lin Zhengnan, and his younger brother Lin Zhinan. This nuanced performance incorporated dance, music, and projection.
This multi-disciplinary approach can be said to be the production’s major feature. Before the performance began, a gigantic image of Mazu was projected onto the front curtain, a soundless rendering of the image of the goddess of the sea. Another ingenious touch was the interweaving of the dancers portraying the author’s character (in the third generation) and her lover, Michael Cornelius, who protected her and encouraged her to find her roots.
Music and visual design were by artist Lin Jingyao. The main male character, Lin Zhinan, was played by the star of Ming Hwa Yuan Arts & Cultural Group, renowned Taiwanese opera performer Sun Cuifeng. However, the musical accompaniment did not feature any of the instruments traditionally used in Taiwanese opera, such as gongs and drums, and the vocals were also an innovative combination of Taiwanese opera and Western-style aria. The performance at once pushed the traditional Taiwanese opera performers to their limits and blended an outwardly modern performance style with a traditional aesthetic. In the “forbidden love” scene between Miwa Ayako and her brother-in-law Lin Zhinan (played by Sun Cuifeng and her daughter Chen Zhaoting), the two characters sing complementary tunes—one a traditional Taiwanese aria and the other a modern aria—to create a unique beauty.
This production of Mazu’s Bodyguards represents a brand new kind of “Taiwanese musical melodrama,” blending Taiwanese opera, traditional parade, and Mazu culture with Western string music, modern dance, and modern theater in order to produce a new account of Taiwan’s history, which departs from the book and enables the audience to experience anew the strange and familiar tale of the land of Taiwan.
Stage Play Mazu’s Bodyguards video clip
(Source: National Performing Arts Center-National Theater & Concert Hall)