IN THE 1930s, Chinese opera artists Cheng Yanqiu and Mei Lanfang traveled to Europe and the United States, looking to promote their art form in the West and to import some Western ideas into their own work.
In "Journey to the West," Chinese theater artist Danny Yung revisits those travels over the course of three nights, pondering ways in which cultures overlap and influence one another. In a sense, he's making the same kind of sojourn through time that his predecessors made over the land, exploring the strange country of traditional Chinese opera, returning with those experiences to the more familiar shores of his own modern experimental theater.
"Traditional opera has provided us an alternate view and way on reading our history," Yung said. "Learning how to read our tradition should be on our progressive cultural agenda."
The piece is part of a series called "Reinterpreting Tradition," a title that could apply equally well to numerous shows in this year's Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe, starting today through Sept. 18. Live Arts events were selected by festival producing director Nick Stuccio; the Fringe is open to anybody who wants a forum for their work.
As much as the intertwined experimental arts festivals, which take over the city for the next few weeks, are dedicated to new forms of expression, many of their performers are finding them by looking back at classic pieces and traditional forms.
Last Friday, the theater space on the fourth floor of Christ Church Neighborhood House was a chaos of cardboard and power tools, onstage and off. Puppeteer Beth Nixon, dressed in a safety-cone orange sweater featuring an image of an elk, rushed frantically around, singing a ukelele-accompanied song while wearing a cardboard deer head, or trying to fix the straps on a cardboard turtle shell for another actor.
Halfway through one scene, another character ran up and offered to sell her some matches, advising, "It's gonna get real dark around here real soon."
Getting dark is nothing new for Philly's Pig Iron Theatre Company, and neither is taking a twisted spin on a classic. For Live Arts 2007, the troupe turned Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" into a play performed by naked corpses in a morgue.
Last year, Western clichés, slapstick clowning and cartoon physicality combined in the madcap "Welcome to Yuba City." But this year, Pig Iron is creating a family-friendly fairy tale, albeit one with a distinctly Pig Iron sense of humor.
" 'Cankerblossom' is different from the Snow Queen or the Wizard of Oz," explained director Dan Rothenberg. "Instead of a child, it has a couple looking for a baby as the main protagonists. It's less of an allegory of coming of age in the sense of the transition from childhood to adulthood, and more of an allegory about coming of age in the transition from adulthood to parenthood."
Whether the source material is Shakespeare or Grimm, Rothenberg insisted that for Pig Iron, reimagining a classic has never been about paying homage to tradition. "It seems to me that an experimental theater company should actually do experiments," he said. "The point for us in almost always doing original work is that we want to give the artist the space to really respond in an immediate way to what's exciting now.
"Sometimes it does have to do with how we engage with an audience. We really like to surprise people, so we do a theatrical bait and switch where we attract people with things that they know they like and then try to add in elements which are surprisingly out of place."
The Outfit's "Jester's Dead," in the Fringe, does precisely that, juxtaposing the seemingly irreconcilable: Shakespeare and the 1986 Tom Cruise hit "Top Gun."
According to director Suzana Berger, "The combination demonstrates that Shakespeare specifically, and theater in general, can easily share an audience with action films, video games, sports and other modern entertainment. The blending of the two languages is so thorough that audiences may find themselves trying to guess if what they just heard was Shakespearean or contemporary, ultimately tricking our ears into hearing both in a new way."
Outfit co-founder Nat McIntyre describes the company's missions as "making theater that his teammates from his college baseball days would be willing to see, and find both enjoyable and challenging when they do."
Berger said that the gulf between Shakespearean theater ("Jester" uses bits from pretty much every one of the Bard's plays) and '80s action flicks is not as wide as most would suppose.
"Bringing Shakespeare into the realm of 'Top Gun' reveals that Shakespeare is not as high culture as many of us assume," she said. "In fact, much of his humor is quite low. Bringing 'Top Gun' into the realm of Shakespeare shines some light on the universal themes present in its story."
A similar high-meets-low aesthetic runs through Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental's "¡El Conquistador!," which blends Greek tragedy, Shakespeare (again), and telenovelas in the story of a doorman bent on vengeance.
For director/performer Thaddeus Phillips, borrowing from the classics is a way to lend structure to his own whimsical flights of fancy.
"When you're grabbing onto Shakespeare, one of the world's greatest dramatists, it's a great help to make a dramatic story that has depth and insight and builds to a dramatic finale," Phillips said. "It's a good structure to help build the show, especially since a lot of telenovelas are based on classical sources. The two aesthetics blend well together, bizarrely enough."
Tribe of Fools co-founder Jay Wojnarowski was already working on an adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" when a housemate stopped taking his antipsychotic medications, growing "pretty dangerous and unpredictable over a surprisingly short period of time."
"All of the fear and anxiety of that living situation was enveloping," Wojnarowski said. "So our adaptation became a very deep exploration of fear. I also became preoccupied with what it was to be sane or insane and how fast that line could be crossed."
That experience led Wojnarowski to take a novel approach, one not available to the author while writing, applying the science of fear and the brain to tailor the theatrical experience to be as frightening as possible. He's even asking audience members to sign a waiver before entering.
"Whenever there is any new progress in any of the sciences, I have to find out about it," he said. "Stoker was a huge science fan too. His book is filled with references to the most up-to-date science and technology he had available to him. In a way, the book is a battle between old superstitious thought and new scientific rationalism. Each is horrifying in its own way."
New York's Nature Theater of Oklahoma also dug deep into its audiences' psyches, in this case hoping to dredge faulty memories for more profound truths. Performer/directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper asked a number of people to retell "Romeo and Juliet" from memory, then assembled a text from the surprising, contradictory and often confused responses.
"What I found interesting was just how people's relationship to the story changed," Copper said. "The way you're less inclined to believe Romeo and Juliet were really in love based on your own relationship to love at that particular moment.
"When we're younger, it seems to be true young love, and when we've reached midlife and gone through a few failed relationships, it's just a crush or possibly not even love but just something hormonal that brings the two together. The plot doesn't change as much as we change. It makes me less fascinated with Shakespeare's genius and more fascinated by humanity. . . . It's not plays that are authentic or original. People are."
2010 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe, today through Sept. 18, 215-413-1318, www.livearts-fringe.org.