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A Man, a Woman and a Rhinoceros

An unconventional love story

Those fooled into thinking that tThose fooled into thinking that this story involves some sort of bestiality or Disney-like anthropomorphism will be disappointed. But otherwise, Rhinoceros in Love can be quite an entertaining story. It tells beautiful but tragic romance between a rhinoceros keeper, Ma Lu, who falls madly in love with his neighbor, Ming Ming. Though he does everything he can to win her love, Ming Ming does not reciprocate his affections, persisting in her love for another man, the artist Chen Fei. In a desperate display of emotion, Ma Lu sacrifices his rhinoceros to show her the depths of his love.

Since 1999, Meng Jinghui, the Chinese avant-garde director with his wife, acclaimed playwright, Liao Yimei, has presented Rhinoceros in Love at the Beijing Youth Theater. Its theatrical run has stimulated many Chinese youth to rethink their attitude toward love and awakened a strong desire and passion faded by time and the practical aspects of material life. The production has been regarded as the “love bible of a new generation” by both the media and its super fans.”

Playwright Liao Yimei has been asked the same question numerous times: Is worth it for Ma Lu to persist in his love for Ming Ming? In response, Liao remarks that Ma is a person who over-exaggerates the difference between one woman and another, and in her eyes he represents the “rhinoceros” in society – sort-sighted and impulsive, unable to control his actions and feelings. Liao portrays Ma in this way because she believes that without perseverance and spontaneity, love cannot exist.

Liao and Meng have collaborated with each other on numerous projects, including three dramas and one motion picture (Xiang Ji Mao Yi Yang Fei, or “Fly Like a Chicken”), since meeting each other at the Central Drama Academy, located in Beijing’s Nanluogu Xiang. It was their honeymoon, in fact, that inspired Liao to write Rhinoceros in Love. “He can direct whatever I write”, says Liao Yimei of Meng. As one of the leading theater directors in recent years, Meng has stirred up quite a following with his new types of experimental drama, deliberately performed in small theaters. He has created and/or directed over ten plays, including Comrade Ah Q, Waiting for Godot, The Balcony, I Love XXX, as well as Amber (another popular collaboration with Liao). When he began his career in the early 1990s, Chinese theaters were producing very few plays and little attention was being paid to the stagnating scene. It was difficult, even, to find actors, since they were all tempted to move in the direction of TV and film. Meng noticed that modern arts (such as installations and multimedia, visual and action art), which had been developing in China the previous decade, had not been incorporated into theater. Thus, he began to develop ways to include electronic music, dazzling lighting and innovative stage settings, and doing so he helped to push the boundaries of China’s modern arts scene.

Nine years later and after an overall investment of RMB 280,000, Rhinoceros in Love has grossed RMB 400,000 and been translated into Korean, English and Romanian. But the success of Meng’s experimental drama is not only represented in box office returns but in the revival of China’s theater arts, and Meng has spent RMB 5 million to refurbish the “Beehive,” or Fengchao Theater, to stage Rhinoceros, with the dream of performing 1,000 times over the next five years.

To date, Meng has put on three versions of the play – in 1999, 2003 and 2004. The most recent rendition, which wrapped up on Aug 3, featured a fresh line-up with much stronger visual elements, such as electric sparks and floods of water. In these ways, film and television will never be able to directly translate the experience of watching this production. This latest performance is also, unfortunately, without English subtitles, but for Meng, to add English subtitles would cause the production to “lose the essence of the show.” Tickets for Rhinoceros in Love were sold out two weeks prior to the opening curtain, so buying far in advance when the second round of performances returns starting Sep 26 is advised.

It was published in September issue of thebeijinger, 2008

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