Mr. Hu, though tiny and engulfed in loose grey and white robes, had a gravity and charisma that communicated a range of emotions, filling the Koch with just a smile.
Confucius lived in the fifth century B.C., coincidentally, the same period as the Buddha thousands of miles away in India (a fact used as the basis of Gore Vidal’s novel, Creation). Written in broad strokes by Liu Chun and directed with a steady sense of rhythmic flow by Kong Dexin (a 77th generation direct descendant of Confucius!), Confucius is more a sketchy reduction of the great philosopher’s life, than an in-depth representation of his complicated philosophies. The only bits of his wisdom we get are quotes from his works projected onto large screens at either side of his stage: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart”; “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”; and, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising whenever we fall.”
Otherwise, the only hints of Confucius’ influence come in the obeisance proffered him by the floating chorus members as his journeys through ancient China led him to the revelations that coalesced into a religion, Ruism.
This dance/theater piece is subtitled “Teacher, philosopher, man who shaped a nation,” a rather big theme to dramatize effectively, especially when the mandate is spectacle. Mr. Liu’s barebones, chronological script (consisting of little more than narrative plot advancements and quotes from Confucius) first finds Confucius a brutalized presence in the court of the Duke of State (Zhu Yin, zestfully portraying the enervation of over-indulgence) whose evil Minister (Guo Haifeng, zingingly evil) works overtime to frustrate Confucius’ effort. Confucius becomes the love object of and mentor to the Concubine (lovely, floating Tang Shiyi) and, finally becomes the beloved and respected sage.
Kong Dexin’s choreography paraded large choruses about the stage in flowing geometric patterns using a hybrid movement vocabulary of ballet, martial arts, acrobatics and mime. Although often quite lovely to watch, Ms. Kong’s contribution was repetitive and lacking in dramatic focus.
Mr. Ren’s scenery consisted of a number of large, moving hanging panels, painted in gold and covered in ancient Chinese script, most likely the actual words of the prophet. These panels wittily echoed the slatted wood scrolls upon which Confucius wrote his treatises. Set pieces (statuary, thrones, trees, etc.) were brought on as needed.
The extraordinary—and numerous—period costumes by Yang Donglin filled the stage with bright colors and were a show in themselves, making each of the principal characters distinct and identifiable, not to forget the range of costumes for the chorus of nearly sixty, hard-working dancers.
Confucius, coming in at an efficient 90 minutes, is a Chinese spectacle that nearly overcomes its expansive staging to get to the heart of its title character. Although not entirely successful, it’s worth a visit.
Confucius (January 5 – 8, 2017)
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, Broadway at 63rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-496-0600 or visit http://www.davidhkochtheater.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission