CRYSTAL BOYS, A DRAMA ABOUT GAY MALE LIFE IN Taiwan in the 1960s, is a performance that lies at the intersection of several motivations. It is associated with Queer Harvard Month; it is also, more importantly, the culmination of this season of ACTS, the Adams House Chinese Theater Series, dedicated to bringing Chinese theater to Adams House. Lying at this intersection, the show is set within a very interesting milieu and has created a remarkable atmosphere. Its overall integrity, however, seems occasionally shaky.
"Crystal boy" is Taiwanese slang for a gay male hustler, and it is in this community that the play is set. New Park, a place of tranquillity within the bustle of Taipei, has become a haven for young gay men who have no other place to go. Earning their living by hustling, leeching off of sugar daddies and working a series of short-lived day jobs, our three main characters form a sort of family under the crass leadership of their pimp, "Chief" Yang Jinhai (Andrew Li '77). The young men offer a study in contrasts: Mild-mannered Wu Min (Vinh Nguyen '91) seeks only love and a home with a blue-tiled bathroom, while hard, flamboyant Little Jade (Kim Liang Tan) has "cherry blossom dreams" of finding a sugar daddy to take him to Japan, where he wants to track down the father he's never met. And the central character, Li Quing (Eddie Borey '00)--"Hawk"--is simply drifting, kicked out by his father and without a stable family outside of the park.
But then Wang Kuilong (Ch'ien-hung Chan) reappears in New Park. A wealthy and exotic figure, he is somehow connected to the park legend about the long-dead hustler Phoenix Boy, and his Dragon Prince, the lover who destroyed him in a fit of mad passion long ago. The play's main themes have by this time been clearly laid out: Sex and love, home and banishment and living with--or escaping from--one's past. The second act enlarges on those themes, bringing the players into a new setting--the Cozy Nest, a gay bar opened by Chief Yang--and introduces a new character, Papa Fu (Carsey Yee), an elderly philanthropist with dubious motives. The revelations which Papa Fu will unfold to Hawk prove to be the symbolic heart of the play.
The Adams House performance is a dramatic adaptation of Taiwanese author Pai Hsien-yung's 1984 novel Niezi, translated into English in 1990 as Crystal Boys and acclaimed by the producers as "the first modern Chinese gay novel." An original creation of Weinstein and Yee, the play very clearly comes from a longer prose work. Weinstein and Yee seem to have tried to strike a balance between dramatizing character development and bringing concrete action to the stage, but the latter often works better than the former. Blocks of monologue, rather than quick banter or fast-moving action, mark the development of the story. One character frequently delivers a revelation or reminiscence to another in a single, unbroken block of text. This can make for unusually slow theatrical pacing.
On the other hand, many of the passages that have been retained are remarkably beautiful, and the dialogues contain much prose of great lyricism and power. The directors have given greater depth to this effect by generating a changing "scenery": slide projectors are used to create a background featuring anything from photographs of tranquil natural scenes, suggesting the peace of New Park, to black-and-white photographs of young men long gone, to illustrate the memory one character is narrating to another.
This work is very much a study in character and memory, as opposed to an action-based piece, and as such tends to feel highly literary. Its central metaphor has to do with birds and nests: the young hustlers, little birds buffeted by the winds of a world that scorns and rejects them, must always eventually come flying back to their place of acceptance--New Park, or the "Cozy Nest" that cradles them.
The players vary in the quality of their performance, both from individual to individual and within the play itself. The main characters are generally strong: Nguyen is a disarmingly pathetic and likable Wu Min, providing a strong character foil for Tan's marvelously cocky portrayal of Little Jade (whose self-assured manner and sexual self-confidence provides many of the play's laughs). But Borey, as a perpetually quiet and responsive Hawk, might add more to the play by being a more participatory and active central character. He's usually hard to read, and his portrayal of an innocent reacting to the world around him is made more difficult to perceive through his evident detachment. Yee, as Papa Fu, seems similarly self-involved, weakening the important second act by delivering his long speeches in a tone somewhat too flat.
Several of the minor players shine in their roles. Georgia Shao-Chi Lee '98 is consistently likable, sensual and amusing as Moon Beauty, the prostitute who takes in Hawk and Little Jade. Chan is quite good as the tortured, Byronic Wang Kuilong. Li, as Chief Yang, wavers between a delightfully arrogant rendition of the part (as he struts about unfolding and snapping shut a large gold fan) and a problematic tendency to stumble over his lines. And Patrick Wang, who plays several small parts--most notably Grandpa Guo, the New Park gardener who first finds Hawk and tells him the park's history--is a powerful actor both in large parts and as a character performer. He could, perhaps, have been better used in one of the larger roles.
Ultimately, Crystal Boys succeeds on a number of levels but falters in others. It is paced to a much slower tempo than we are accustomed to in theater, and it's not clear that the literary and atmospheric benefits that derive from its slow pace is a worthwhile trade-off for the audience's attention. It also suffers from the fact that several key performers seem to have a hard time remaining engaged and focused throughout the play's duration. But the atmospheric effects are intriguing, the lyricism and symbolism of the text moving and the subject matter utterly fascinating. Its attractions make Crystal Boys worth seeing, especially if the viewer has an interest in exploring a world that seems both familiar and previously unimagined. But for those more patient with prose than drama, perhaps the best way to catch the text's lyrical beauty would be to read Pai Hsienyung's novel.