Carolina Creative Campus – The Gender Project

Vivien and The Shadows

The DTH headline on the Oct. 21 performance of Vivien and The Shadows was “Sex Spectacle Shocks”. Yes, there were elements of the play that were shocking, uncomfortable to watch, even offensive. However, I believe that sex was not the main point of the play – it explored issues of gender and sexuality within the larger issues of appearance and copying.

In the program notes, the director, Ong Keng Sen, states that “Vivien and The Shadows is inspired by the ‘taboo’ concept of copying”. The work addresses the tension between the Eastern and Western traditions of art. This is a topic that has interested me for a while now; the Asian way of learning art (be it theater, music, painting, etc.) is to copy the master until one can achieve the exact same level of ability – only then can one be considered an artist. However, in the Western world copying is seen in a negative light, and originality is praised. We would much rather a child draw an original blob than trace the Mona Lisa. Can original art be formed from a copy of another?
Vivien and The Shadows begins with one performer copying the movements and expressions of Blanche DuBois in the film A Streetcar Named Desire. Throughout the entire play, the movie plays on small screens offstage, and some scenes were projected onto a large screen, with performers copying the movements of the original actors. Yet Vivien and The Shadows was much more than a rerun of A Streetcar Named Desire – it was a work of art in its own right. When does a copy become more than a copy?

Theater as an art form inherently must deal with the issue of copying. When one acts, one is copying the movements, the gestures, the inflections of something or someone else. We don’t expect an actress to actually get stabbed onstage, we expect her to act as if she were. What is the difference? Is there a difference?

Another large theme in the play was the fluidity of illusion, appearances, and our definition of self. The performers constantly changed outfits, wigs, makeup, speech… everything. There was no single coherent plotline, and all the performers narrated in the first person, with no single main character. One point made was that illusions and darkness can sometimes free us and allow us to be our “true” selves. One character was an accountant by day and could only let his gay self be known at night, in the shadows. This reminded me of the summer reading book, Covering, and a question common to both works: how much of who we are is defined by how we look, and what we do? How does our appearance define us to others?

Although some parts were difficult to watch or hard to understand, I enjoyed the play overall. It was definitely experimental theater, but it was thought-provoking and quite beautiful at times. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see the world premiere of this piece, and I hope that it can spark dialogue about the illusions and shadows in our own lives.

-Fei Fei Wang
Honors Arts and Dialogue Program
Freshman, biology and music double major

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