By Megan Wilson, December 28 2021—
After twenty months, live in-person theatre has finally made its return to the University of Calgary campus in the form of a production of Gao Xingjian’s The Bus Stop. With a stunning set and strong directorial choices, the opportunity to physically return to the theatre has been well worth the wait.
This play, first performed in 1983 at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, was — and currently is — banned in mainland China under the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. Nonetheless, it remains an important cultural touchstone for Chinese theatre. Regardless of whether you are a history buff, well-read on communist censorship, or simply looking for something to do in the evening this week, The Bus Stop is well worth your time.
Director Fangzheng (Nick) Wang has taken Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian’s absurdist play about a group of people stuck waiting endlessly at a bus stop and not only adapted it in a way that is visually delightful and crosses cultural boundaries, but provided stark commentary on the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plot of the play follows an ensemble cast vigorously debating, both with each other and themselves, about whether or not a bus will eventually pick them up from a dingy bus stop and take them to an idealized city somewhere down the road.
Not a lot happens in terms of plot, and yet the play remains an exciting, emotional experience that will have you deeply invested in the fates of these characters, and likely doing a little bit of soul-searching yourself after the performance is over.
The tone for this experience is set with the stage’s simple, grimy elegance. This tone is further reinforced through the silent but powerful addition of three non-speaking characters dressed solely in grey taking the stage before the play even starts and aimlessly wandering about The Bus Stop.
Wang masterfully uses the boredom of these silent characters and the anxiety of the audience watching them, waiting for something to happen to reinforce the themes of the show. This choice of starting with silence reinforces the sudden explosion of sound as the speaking members of the cast enter The Bus Stop, each member brightly colour-blocked and sparkling with energy.
The cast of speaking and non-speaking characters work together as a unit throughout the show, playing off each other’s energy dynamics and creating several interesting visual moments on tableau. Additionally, the production has a few technical tricks up its sleeve in terms of special effects and sound, which I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.
The choice to project Mandarin subtitles over top of the stage during the production adds an interesting dimension that reminds the viewer of the play’s origin and is overall a nice stylistic touch. Even if you don’t speak Mandarin, the subtitles add another layer to the cross-cultural connection of the performance.
While there’s not a direct connection in the script to a pandemic or lockdowns, it’s the anxiety-inducing feeling of waiting that the audience is all too familiar with at this point, which connects the production to the last twenty months of the pandemic.
Watching the cast endlessly wait in limbo for a bus that seems like it’s never going to come is the same feeling of staring at your bedroom wall, wondering when the pandemic will end and real-life will start up again. Personally, I am utterly sick of talking about COVID more than I have to but the round-about way this performance tackles the issue was quite comforting.
Watching the show reaffirmed the stress and pain of what we’ve all gone through over what is almost two years of a global pandemic and united the audience for the plight of the characters.
Additionally, the university itself seems to have united around the Fine Arts department to bring live theatre back to campus. Both Provost and Vice President Academic Dr. Teri Balser and Faculty of Arts Dean Dr. Richard Sigurdson were notably in attendance at the opening night performance on Nov. 26.
While the Performing Arts department did offer several virtual, live-streamed shows over lockdown, the excitement to have a live audience in front of the stage again was palpable from the cast and crew, so it was nice to see university administration there for support.
The Bus Stop ran until Dec. 4. Whether you are like me and have been on the edge of your seat waiting for the chance to walk through theatre doors again or have never experienced the treat that is a live performance, this is a fantastic opportunity to support the arts on campus.