Waiting for Godot goes to China, in Gao Xinjian's The Bus Stop, where the bus that never stops, serves as a metaphor for the civil rights that communism promised but never delivered. However, whether the characters are waiting for the relaxing of communist China's laws, or just a ride, watching these people waiting for a bus is at times as frustrating as doing the waiting yourself.
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
In Gao Xinjian’s The Bus Stop, a group of frustrated people waiting for a bus to the city serves as a metaphor for the experience of living in communist China. This bus does not come, but something compels the group to stay. A program notes tells us that the play was banned when it was first performed in China, for using the bus stop loiterers as a metaphor for communism’s false promises. (The bus only stops for some people, though the country promises that it’s for everyone.)
More than twenty years since it premiered in 1983, and without the context of living in China, this allegory loses its sting. It’s just a bunch of people on a cold, sparsely furnished grey stage, waiting for a mythic bus. Without reading the program note, it’s a stretch to try to figure out why these people have been waiting for over a year, as the dialogue revolves more around the minutiae of bus schedules than it does about life in China. Girl (Alice Oh) wonders whether a man in the city will wait for her. Hothead, the bully (Adam Hedri), starts fights with the other potential passengers, trying to cut in line–all because he wants to taste the city’s yogurt (the importance of which is never explained). Glasses, the nerd (Gabe Belyeu), is about to take his college entrance exam, though no amount of education can convince him that the bus is not going to stop for him. Sound effects signal that one might be coming a few times over the course of the play, but never does. Years pass and they're still there, which begs the question: Oppressive government or not, allegory for communism or not, why don’t they just stop waiting?
It’s a question the actors can’t answer, especially given how overly earnest they play their roles.(The exception is Albert Lima, whose straight posture and carefully measured speaking voice fit his role as the Older Wise Man.) In general, however, the cast exaggerates facial expressions and movements to try and convey their fates and feelings when the action and dialogue don’t. Hothead flails around the stage like his limbs are made of elastic, and starts fights with Glasses, who can’t seem to stand up for a minute without compelling another bus-stop denizen to punch him. He falls without any resistance, as if he wants to be hit. (We get it, he’s not too strong). A Brit who works for one of the few companies allowed to do business with the Chinese government, who brags about the privileges (cigarettes, better food, wine) that he receives because of his position, gives the audience some insight into just how deep divisions can be in supposedly divisionless society, but he too begins to talk mostly about bus schedules, and soon becomes repetitive too. While a few of the characters manage to find time to comment on the unfairness of a society that promises equality without delivering it, neither the bus nor a resolution arrives, and the audience is likely to be as frustrated as those unfortunate, waiting fools.
The Bus Stop (80 minutes, no intermission)
Sanford Meisner Theater (164 Eleventh Avenue)
Tickets available at theatermania.com, or by calling (212) 352-3101 ($15)
Performances March 26-April 19th, Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 7pm, and matinees on Sat. & Sun. at 3pm.
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