Watching a thoughtful, ambitious and well-staged original play is a joy in itself. When you add to that equation an original play at the community college level, in which students get the chance to premiere a new work of art, it adds even more to the appeal.
Such is the warm and fuzzy feeling I get from Charles Erven’s “Mulan and the Battle on Black Mountain” at Fresno City College, which he based on an ancient Chinese poem.
There are similarities between this “Mulan” and the Disney version that most people associate with the title. The biggest is the character of Mulan herself, who disguises herself as a man to join the emperor’s army so she can save her sick father from being conscripted.
But Erven’s version takes a different approach in terms of structure and narrative. As you might expect, his script is more astute and probing than the glossy animated Disney version.
Gender roles and sexual politics are major themes, and they go far beyond the broad comic appeal of a woman in a strictly gendered culture getting away with being a man. Instead, we get to know and identify with a slyly empowered person who adroitly maneuvers through the stereotypes and assumptions of her own time, finding a way to succeed on her own terms.
Erven uses a classic storytelling device to structure the script: In a prologue, Mulan (played by a dynamic and impressive Thuy Duong, who anchors the show and displays a lot of acting promise) has shocked the emperor’s court by revealing herself as a woman. From there, the narrator (KP Phagnasay, in a charismatic performance), a mysterious man named Yang Chong, asks to tell her story – and save her from being executed for her deceit.
As that story unfolds, we watch Mulan chafe at the marriage arranged for her by her parents, then join forces with an unlikely companion – the hapless Wang (a standout Sabrina Lopez), the man she didn’t want to marry – on her cross-dressing adventure in the army.
Director Debra Erven, who also designed the beautiful and effective costumes, gives us a tight and visually appealing production, deftly using such theatrical techniques as shadow puppetry, stylized movements and semi-surreal video projections (designed by Derek Bevin). The production’s graceful choreography (by Jimmy Hao, a college faculty member who grew up in China’s Cultural Revolution) adds a special authenticity to the proceedings.
Christopher R. Boltz’s scenic and lighting design, which evokes a sense of earthiness and rustic lushness, has a sense of movement (thanks to some nifty new technology) and yet simplicity.
The cast has a strong sense of ensemble, with some particularly fine performances by Adam Zakaria and Felicia Cabiero as Mulan’s parents, among other roles.
A few thoughts about the original script:
▪ Erven crafts some beautiful moments as he weaves together cultural-specific anecdotes. One of my favorites is when we hear a story about love using the characters of a worm, bird and cat.
▪ I like the storytelling structure bookended by scenes in the present, and the play’s final twist is really strong.
▪ I sometimes found the narrative too complicated and fussy. (Just how many battles for Black Mountain do there have to be?) The narrator character is meant to be mysterious, “Into the Woods”-style, but there’s so little for us to latch onto in terms of back story and motivation that he feels more cryptic than relatable. And when his relationship to the action – explained in a burst of exposition – is explained, it’s sort of dumped on the audience without much opportunity to process it.
▪ The end of the first act feels a little listless. It needs more punch, something to carry over through intermission in a way that leaves the audience excited for more.
▪ To me, the conflict in the play isn’t strong enough. The character of Leopard Skin, the adversary of the Emperor, remains mostly abstract, and Mulan’s military objective feels fuzzy. The battle scenes (or descriptions of them) have a detached feel. The de facto “villain” of the piece, an army rival of Mulan’s named Xin Ping (Aaron Schoonover, with some nice moments), is underdeveloped. I kept waiting for a way to find some sort of driving, forward motion to this part of the narrative, but it bogged down for me.
▪ The love story in the play is wonderful and sweet and, along with the gender-politics theme, is the most intriguing part of the show. (Especially because the character of Wang is played by a woman, which adds another delightful layer of sexual ambiguity.) I’d consider beefing up that relationship even more.
In the end, the experience of “Mulan” is far greater than the few areas in which I think it could be improved. For Fresno City College to tackle this original play – and to perform it so gracefully and with such passion – is a gift to the community. Go out and see something that’s never been done before.
Mulan and the Battle on Black Mountain
- 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3 and Friday, March 4; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5
- Fresno City CollegeTheatre
- www.fresnocitycollege.edu/, 559-442-8221
- $14, $12 students and seniors