Exploring Gender Identity Through Traditional Asian Theater

‘Masked Acts’ addresses social and political themes by reimagining classic productions

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Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

Drama, Masks & Gender Fluidity

“He or she — love is love,” said Panji, a colorfully clad character played by Naomi Grunst, surrounded by a group of actors in striking and bright Indonesian-style costumes. The performance of “Panji-Candra Kirana” was one of three plays in “Masked Acts.”

The shows aimed to tell classical stories through the lens of Japanese, Malay, Indonesian and Chinese culture, while exploring the theme of gender fluidity. The use of masks allowed the actors to change gender, challenging the rigid binary structure of identity in society, before the audience of 15 in the Mainstage Theater on March 9.

“I just thought [the theme of gender fluidity] was of interest to students at present,” said director and professor of theater arts Kathy Foley. “I thought it would be interesting to look at various stories from the classical canon that raise some of those issues perhaps not in the way that they would be raised in contemporary drama.”

The program consisted of several performances featuring gamelan orchestra, traditional percussion ensemble music from Bali and Java. The shows were an Indonesian dance-drama “Panji-Candra Kirana,” Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in Japanese Kyōgen style and an excerpt from the traditional Chinese love-story “Butterfly Lovers.”

“We, as a society, have only recently advanced to where we can choose our genders and our gender performance,” said third-year Daniel Eslick, who played Bagong, Confucius and the Jade Emperor. “Theater is one of the better mediums that we can see the performativity of gender on stage.”

While acknowledging the themes addressed in the show are important to bring into the mainstream, not all members of the audience thought the show did it in the most effective way due to the inclusion of the gender changes into many of the jokes.

“I could see what they were trying to do with gender and the messages […] but in a lot of the pieces, the way it was handled, it felt like the gender commentary was a punchline,” said audience member and second-year Mariana Briskin. “That line is very difficult to walk and I think the show stepped over it a couple of times.”

A Different Perspective

Gender fluidity was not the only issue the show tried to display. Rather than the traditional Anglo approach displayed in much of theater, the shows exhibited Indonesian, Malay, Chinese and Japanese culture in the stories, costumes and choreography selected.

“‘Butterfly Lovers’ is very important in the Chinese repertoire,” director Kathy Foley said. “We have a number of Chinese students and I thought; this is a classic, like ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ why don’t any of our students know these stories?”

Asian students made up 29.8 percent of incoming UC Santa Cruz first-year students in 2015. The costumes, characters and choreography used in “Masked Acts” allowed for an exhibition of cultures that may be less well known at UCSC and in the U.S.

“For me, the most satisfying part was the stylized performance from cultures that I’m not usually exposed to so that was really cool,” Briskin said.

While performing Shakespeare in the setting of different cultures is certainly common, it is not usually done as a stylized performance of those cultures, which is a different thing, Briskin said. This is a specialty of director Kathy Foley.

The Art of Political Satire

Kelana, an ogre king from an overseas kingdom played by Dennis Nguyen, threatened to build a wall as he shouted that “no one has more respect for women” than he. Turning to the audience, one of Kelana’s workers joked that although she worked for this administration, she hadn’t voted for it and we all just had to make it through four more years. Although the show took a unique approach in its portrayal of classic stories and themes, it was joining the broader emerging trend of incorporating political satire into art.

“It was not my intention to do anything about Trump,” Foley said. However, given the current political climate, it made sense to include political commentary in the show, she said.

All three plays were rich with political references, from pink pussy hats to the building of a wall and jokes about climate change and crowd sizes in between.

“The next four years are going to be very important in terms of the satire we do here in America,” said third-year actor Daniel Eslick. “We know Trump doesn’t like being made fun of, we know he doesn’t like being put on the stage.”

This mockery of modern day American politics is part of a movement in comedy and arts to defy President Trump. This has been done famously by “Saturday Night Live” in the U.S., but also in sketch shows from countries all around the world.

“I think that it is so important that we do meaningful political theater, […] to say we see what’s going on and we want to challenge it,” said audience member Mariana Briskin. “The purpose of art is to make people see what’s happening and show them viewpoints they haven’t considered. It’s education, it’s information and it’s compassion.”