A couple weeks before coming back to the States, I had the opportunity to see an incredible theatre production called “Made in China.” This was a collaborative project between French and Chinese artists, part of an annual French arts festival in Beijing. The résumé for the show bills this as a production that explores humanity’s relationship to objects in a world that increasingly mass-produces and how our culture of consumption has grown to change how we perceive and interact with the objects around us. It sounded fantastic, very philosophical and culture-critiquey and very, ultimately, French. I couldn’t wait!
While the show wasn’t without its “?!?” moments (as to be expected with French theatre, based on experience), there were several stand-out scenes that I have been eager to write about. I have decided to give them scene titles to describe more easily – I hope you enjoy. J
War on Green
Construction workers dressed in orange jumpsuits go about their daily work. Suddenly, a small chunk of foliage drops from above. It hangs down feet below the ceiling. As it drops, an emergency siren erupts. Lights flash. The orange-clad workers go ballistic. They employ endless tactics to bring down the green. They spray chemicals, climb a ladder with shears a-snipping, hoist one worker on top of another to try to reach and bring down the enemy. Ultimately, they can’t do it, and they flee the scene. Why the fear, why the extreme determination to eliminate – or at least tame and control – the green?
Communication Overload / Technology Meltdown
A sweet, stodgy man enters carrying one suitcase and wearing a watering can on a chain around his neck. He wears glasses, is smiley and dopey-looking, and walks around appreciatively picking up, examining and playing with the mundane objects that litter the stage.
A woman dressed professionally enters. Her phone rings; she answers. Very crisp, quick, hospitality services-esque. Another phone rings. She pulls it out of another pocket, answers, quick, juggling. A phone rings again; she pulls out a third. Fast, perky. Juggling phones, switching languages. English. Chinese. French. – “Paris? Bonjour! Oui, non, oui, merci, au revoir.” The scene degenerates as she continues juggling phones, switching languages, running around trying to do it all, working herself into a frenzy until she literally has a meltdown. The special effects were beautiful – a smoke machine in her jacket began emitting a cloud of smoke, and the actor collapsed onto a table center stage, unable to go on. The pudgy, concerned man looked on, unsure what to do.
The Calming Effects of Dirt / Get Dirty
He walks toward the collapsed, smoking woman. He sets his suitcase on the table and opens it, revealing a suitcase full of dirt. Beautiful, natural, dirty dirt. He picks up her hands (she is completely out of it, not even aware of his actions) and plants them in the dirt, piling up a mound over each hand. From somewhere appears a handful of flowers and he plants one bunch over each of her hands. Suddenly the meaning behind his bizarre necklace becomes apparent, as he pours the watering can to water the flowers and the woman. The smoke emanating from her jacket slows to a halt. She visibly relaxes and looks up to take in the flowers and the man. It is a beautiful moment, until once again the awful siren explodes and she jumps, uprooting the flowers and slamming shut the suitcase of dirt like a contaminated thing, running offstage to presumably dispose of it.
The Stuff around Us
The final scene returns to the construction workers. They slowly move objects about the stage, constructing and then tearing down a mini world of stuff, from toys to toilet paper rolls to old stereos. The beautiful collage of things and the workers’ strange relationship to them is fascinating and unsettling, somewhere between worship and total disconnection or apathy. It puts into strange perspective our current culture of stuff, why we must have so much and how we feel (or don’t feel) about all the clutter. How did we get here?
This production was a clear critique of the culture of overconsumption, waste, and the slow degradation of nature that our world has cultivated. Seeing the show in one of the world’s largest cities, which, though it has a great deal of green space, also crafts cultivated, tamed, and controlled green spaces over any true nature, was a fascinating and difficult portrayal of contemporary city-driven society. It prompted me to reflect on my gardening project and why little Black Thumb Ryan felt so strongly inclined to try planting a potted garden in polluted Beijing; how I am so sorely nostalgic of my mother’s garden now that I’m living in the city; and what, other than family and friends, I miss most about home. There is so much that we give up by moving to the city, forsaking gardens and green spaces, and disconnecting ourselves from nature. I feel it, and have felt such joy in being able to yet again bike out to Bennington Lake; trot out back any ol’ time to cut a few rhubarb stalks or pluck up some beets; or take a long country stroll in the early morning or sunset hours and marvel at the gorgeous Walla Walla skies. Oh, my heart! Nature! How special and truly humanizing you are!