East and West, history and myth, power and subservience — not to mention a handful of theatrical styles —will all come together in a riot of colour, action and song at the Gateway Theatre, beginning this week.
And standing at centre stage will be Langley soprano Grace Fatkin, as the Richmond theatre company presents Forbidden Phoenix, an allegorical retelling of a famous — and somewhat infamous — piece of Canadian history.
Written by a pair of Alberta men — Marty Chan and Robert Walsh — Forbidden Phoenix is loosely based on the experience of the Chinese immigrants who were brought to Canada to work on the railroad in the 1800s.
In a show that combines elements of Peking opera, martial arts, acrobatics and Western musical theatre, the plot centres around Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, who is torn from his son, Laosan, and exiled to the west after displeasing the almighty Empress Dowager.
Forced to work for the mighty Horne in Terminal City, he sets off to make his fortune. He need only conquer Gold Mountain and free the Iron Dragon to realize his dream of being reunited with his son.
Performing the role of the Empress Dowager — a traditional character in Chines mythology — Fatkin represents the Peking opera element of the play.
And ruling her kingdom with an iron hand, she is indeed a force to be reckoned with, said the actress and singer.
“With the flick of a hand, she can dispatch her subjects.
“The more they grovel, the more powerful she is.”
And that suits the Walnut Grove Secondary English and drama teacher, just fine.
Playing such a bombastic character is a “licence to chew some scenery,” she laughed
“Everything just grinds to a halt when I walk on stage.
“She’s so delightful in her evil. You can boo her, but you can’t hate her.”
This is the third time Gateway has come calling for Fatkin. She played Mother Abbess in their 2001 production of The Sound of Music and, one year later, she performed the role of Lady Thiang in The King and I.
While those are both well-known stories, that have been told and retold for a few decades now, Forbidden Phoenix premiered at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in late 2009.
Fatkin’s first contact with the play came in January of 2010, when she was asked to take part in a workshop at Gateway.
“When I first heard of it, I thought, ‘fusion? I don’t know, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Fatkin said.
After a week of intensive study of the play, however, she was sold.
“It works beautifully,” she said.
The blending of traditional Chinese and classical instruments is amazing, she said.
“You’ve just got to hear it to believe it.”
She also appreciated having the folks who wrote the play and the music around to discuss the work.
“I just found it quite cool to be able to talk to the composer and the orchestrator. They walked us through how they want us to do it.”
The unusual musical style was a challenge at first for the classically trained singer.
“It’s a very intricate rhythm. You stop in the middle of a bar, rest for two beats and start in the middle of the next bar.”
Having the composer right there to explain what he was after with the technique, was just a bonus, she said.
Fatkin is now the head of the English department at WGSS, but she once taught Canadian literature at TWU — a genre she describes as “unfailingly bleak.”
“It’s never been associated with colour and vibrancy, and then to get this (script) which is such a beautiful blend of east and west.”
Forbidden Phoenix was written as a children’s show, but Fatkin sees it working on a number of levels. The action will keep kids entertained, while adults will pick up on the allegorical elements, she said.
However, smaller children might find the Iron Dragon a bit scary at first, she cautioned
The beast, which, of course, represents a railway locomotive, is modeled on the Chinese lion that people will be familiar with from festivals and parades.
“It will be amazing when it comes snaking out,” she said.
And while Fatkin’s own black and gold costume may not be as colourful as those surrounding her — most notably, the vibrant phoenix — its technical complexity has more than made up for the lack, creating all kinds of headaches for the designers, she said.
“The Empress, typically speaking, will have bound feet. It’s a question of how to make it look like my feet are bound.”
Then there was the matter of just how enormous and elaborate a headdress the actress could support.
“They were trying to figure out if they could fit the whole Forbidden City on my head,” she laughed.
While her own character is necessarily quite sedentary, Fatkin said there is no point in the show — which runs about an hour and 40 minutes — when there isn’t action happening on the stage.
Among the five principal characters and the 11 ensemble players who make up the cast, there are acrobats, trained dancers and martial artists.
The actor playing the Monkey King is a stuntman and licensed stage fighting instructor.
“To watch him is to pick your jaw off the floor,” she said. “And he makes it all look effortless.”
The performer also gave a tip of her giant headpiece to “the most kick-ass 10-piece orchestra ever.”
Sung in English with Mandarin surtitles, Forbidden Phoenix is an attempt to bring together an Eastern and Western audience as well, Fatkin said.
“(Gateway) have been smack dab in the middle of Richmond for decades, but I think this is a real concerted effort to integrate something that will draw in a Chinese audience.”
Forbidden Phoenix runs at Gateway Theatre from April 8 to 23, with a preview performance on April 7. Evening shows begin at 8 p.m., matinees begin at either 1 p.m. or 2 p.m.
Tickets are $43 adult/senior; $27.50 student. Group rates available. Call the box office at 604-270-1812 or go to gatewaytheatre.com.
Gateway Theatre is located at 6500 Gilbert Rd. in Richmond.