Thunderstorm 2.0, a production of the Chinese experimental theater company Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental that recently made its North American premiere at the Under the Radar Festival, is, on a basic level, a modern updating of a seminal work of Chinese theater, Cao Yu's 1934 play Thunderstorm. But director and coscriptwriter Wang Chong, the company's founder and artistic director, has more on his mind than mere modernization.
As has been the case with the Théâtre's previous productions, Thunderstorm 2.0 also aims to be a multimedia experience. Thus, camerapeople follow the actors onstage and capture their performances, with the live footage projected onto a big screen situated above the actors, and with video director Yang Fan handling the filmed elements in the manner of a live telecast. But the presence of two pingtan performers, Jiang Xiaobo and Xie Yan, creating the dialogue and soundtrack onstage while the actors pantomime their parts silent-movie-style suggests that Wang is also interested in evoking Chinese artistic traditions of the past while looking ahead aesthetically.
Perhaps because Wang has incorporated so many different media elements into Thunderstorm 2.0, he has drastically simplified what was, in Cao Yu's play, a sprawling dysfunctional family melodrama down to its barest essentials: two lower-class women who discover they're both being cheated on by the same rich man. If Thunderstorm could be accused of having an excess of plot, though, Thunderstorm 2.0's streamlined plot seems thin even for the 75 minutes it takes to tell it, as if Wang were less interested in the story and characters themselves than in the technologically forward-thinking way in which he tells it.
Those onstage cameras — with some of the cast members doubling as camera operators and stunt doubles — turn out, to some degree, to be more interesting than the story line and characters themselves. Even a last-minute attempt to give topical relevance to the drama — with the two pingtan performers suddenly breaking out of character and engaging in casual conversation with each other, making jokey references to Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump — feels tacked-on at best.
Thunderstorm 2.0 doesn't need such heavy-handed references, because the multimedia elements are provocative enough in that regard. With camerapeople moving fluidly throughout Li Yi's three-room set design, Wang's take on Cao Yu's text suggests a period melodrama seen through a Big Brother-style reality TV prism (only the presence of a cassette player over which two of the characters erotically flirt suggests that this is taking place in a more recent time). And amid the technical gimmickry, hints of sharp class and gender critiques peek through, with the two women characterized as being stuck in an endless cycle of exploitation, both of them at the mercy of a heartlessly seductive rich man as they try to marry up in status and thus forge a better life for themselves. There's much to mull over in Thunderstorm 2.0, even if Wang Chong's production ultimately ends up playing more as an interesting experiment in storytelling than a satisfying drama in its own right.