BUDDHA'S FACE and hands are painted gold, and he is trying hard to keep that serene smile. He can't do it. The Monkey King, who wears a bright-yellow suit with baggy trousers, is cavorting around the palace, brandishing a long, wooden staff, beating everyone he can reach and insulting the rest.
The Monkey King (who is a god, but not of the better class) is angry because a few minutes ago, Lao Tzu's minions picked him up and threw him bodily into an enormous ceramic cooking pot, where he was roasted amid great flashes of fire and billows of smoke.
He bursts out of the pot and more explosions, stronger than ever, steals Lao Tzu's cloak, seats himself on his throne, hits him on the head, pulls his moustache (which is very white and knee-length), steals his shoe and tickles his foot. No wonder Lao Tzu calls on Buddha for help.
Buddha's demon disciples, the 18 Lo Hans, chase the Monkey King. Some wave swords already streaming with blood (little trangular pieces of blood-red silk (fastened to the blades flutter when the swords are waved). Some wear enormous, demonic masks. One looks like a tiger, another like a dragon, and they do cartwheels in mid-air as they fight, but a mere 18 of them are no match for the Monkey King.
This is not Saturday-morning television. It is the rarefied an exotic art form called Peking Opera, where Barnum and Bailey meet "Days of Our Lives" and "The Perils of Pauline."
It's a little bit like a soap opera, a little like a very elaborate Bruce Lee movie, occasionally like the Keystone Kops, frequently like ballet and sometimes like the sprechstimme of Arnold Schoenberg.
But the Peking Opera, which opens Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, really is not much like anything but itself.
"Perhaps it would give a more correct impression to call it 'Peking Ballet,' says Sheldon Gold, president of ICM artists, who imported the Chinese spectacle for its American tour -- the first for the company. "The problem is, there is already an organization called the Peking Ballet."
Gold spent four weeks in China and saw more than 50 productions before selecting the items to be included in this tour. He settled on the repertoire that runs at the Opera House through Sept. 14 -- nine operas or segments of operas in four alternating programs. The opening night features "The Monkey King Fights the 18 Lo Hans," "The Jade Braclet" and "Yen Tang Mountain."
Gold says the program has been tailored "to appeal to and communicate directly with an American public that will be seeking a new art form for the first time. I tried to get a cross-section, bearing in mind the language barrier and focusing on the unique qualities of this kind of theater -- action, spectacle, humor, martial arts and drama. In China, this is mass entertainment, someting like vaudeville -- easily accessible and containing nothing that is impossible to appreciate."
In China, there are 370 companies performing Peking Opera, including 11 in Peking. They draw on an enormous traditional repertoire based on stories of anonymous origin that are known to everyone. The Monkey King, for example, is something like a combination of Robin Hood and Till Eulenspiegel in Chinese folklore and is featured prominently in every form of Chinese popular art.
Playing throughout China, a land of many languages, the Peking Opera uses a language almost as foreign to many of its native audiences as it is to English-speakers. At best, the stage language might relate to the spoken language as Shakespearean English relates to modern spoken English.
Perhaps for this reason, the Peking Opera style has developed a large variety of non-verbal forms of communication, including dance, mime, juggling and stylized gestures that can be read easily by speakers of any language. During its run in New York, some fans adopted a variation on the slogan that made Levy's Rye Bread a household word: "You don't have to be Chinese to enjoy Peking Opera."
This is specially true in the export version being brought to the Kennedy Center, which has been selected and pared down to emphasize its non-verbal strengths. Prima donna Zhao Yan-Xia -- for whom one opera, "The Goddess of the Green Ripples," was extensively revised by a leading playwright in 1959 -- is not sure how well she likes the export adaptation. "If we were playing it in China," she said, "it would last for over two hours. Here, it has been cut to 55 minutes -- much of the singing, acting and love interest have been eliminated to suit American tastes.The parts I like best have been cut out."
Undoubtedly those few Americans who have acquired a taste for Chinese music and who appreciate the subtle nuances of the language will agree with her. But those who give a standing ovation to the Monkey King after he cartwheels his way out of incredible dangers may be happier without the leading lady's favorite parts.
During a recent evening at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where the Peking troupe was playing, very little of the show seemed lost on the American audience. Occasionally, an actor would say or sing something, and there would be laughter from about 25 percent of the audience, silence from the non-Chinese speaking remainder. That was in "The Jade Bracelet," a drama about a young woman of good character winning the heart of a marriageable young scholar. But even in this playlet -- which was the evening's closest approach to Western-style drama, with lots of dialogue, quite a bit of singing and no fight scenes at all -- the story was conveyed mainly to the eyes. Pantomime is used lavishly, and the traditional gestures constituted a universal language: eloquent manipulation of a fan by the young man, a palpitating hand held over the heart by the young woman, an elaborate mime of how she feeds the chickens, cleans the house and does her embroidery (including a quaintly hilarious section on threading a needle).
There was far less verbiage in the evening's other two offerings, "The Monkey King Fights the Eighteen Lo Hans" and "Princess Red Fish," both of which were climaxed by lavishly choreographed scenes in which a single hero (or heroine) defeats a whole horde of assailants. In Peking Opera -- with its troupe of 75 -- people fight one another by doing double or triple somersaults in mid-air, by juggling weapons, and by elaborate dancing. The spectacular fight scenes tend to feature a whole pack of villains tossing spears at the hero or heroine, who colorfully tosses, bats or kicks them back, sometimes handling two or three spears at a time. Kung Fu movies are pale in comparison.
The solitary hero kicking spears back is a fairly accurate emblem of Peking Opera's recent history. Prima donna Zhao Yan-Xia, whose special talents make her a sort of combination of Maria Callas, Charlie Chaplin and Nadia Comaneci in her own country, was dropped from the Peking Opera's staff and became a day laborer during the Cultural Revolution of recent memory. All the traditional operas were dropped from the repertoire and new productions with propaganda messages were introduced.
"During the period of the clique of four, 1966 to 1976, only new operas with political messages were allowed," she said in a conversation backstage at the Met. "I was the first victim of this policy. I was dropped from the troupe and had to change my profession to that of a laborer in the building trades." Her hands got out in front of her, one above the other, and begin a coordinated rotary motion. She is a skilled mime, and it was immediately obvious that she was mixing cement -- by hand.
"Originally, they wanted me to stay because of my ability and popularity -- but I was eliminated because I would not follow all orders without question," she said.
"The art of Peking Opera is very difficult, but it is more difficult to build buildings." And the hands started moving again, mixing cement.
Zhao, who began to study acting, singing and acrobatics at age 7, was already performing at 8, a member of a national company at 11 and a star at 15. aNow in her early 50s, she is noted particularly for her unusual versatility in an art where rigid type-casting is the general rule. The gestures, bearing, way of walking and vocal style are so highly specialized for each kind of role that some actresses who play young women of good character are unwilling or unable to play woman of bold, coquettish character, or women of marital character. Zhao has crossed these lines, and many more. Besides a variety of women's roles, she also takes male parts and even the clown roles, which requires a very different kind of training.
"It is not very unusual to play more than one class of woman," she explains, "but to add males roles and clown roles is unusual. I began to enlarge my scope by playing in some numbers where the woman in the opera impersonates a man -- and my male impersonations were so well received that I was asked to take some young men's roles. In my earlier years, I took many roles that required a lot of acrobatics -- but now I only do that once in a while. Most of my work is in singing and acting."
When the tide of cultural revolution turned, the Chinese people began to revive Peking Operas and other traditional arts in what Sheldon Gold calls "a whole 'Roots' phenomenon." When the posters went up announcing that Zhao Yan-Xia was coming back, people began waiting in line the day before tickets went on sale and stood in line overnight. Her first entrance was greeted with a 10-minute standing ovation.
Peking Opera or ching hsi in its current form is only about two centuries old, but it draws on roots that are about as old as those of Greek drama, with the purely dramatic parts developing later and more slowly than the elements of music, dance, juggling and acrobatics. Scholars estimate that China has more than 300 regional styles of opera.
The Peking style represents an amalgamation of various essentially northern forms of stage art from Peking and surrounding provinces, which struggled for a long time against an earlier, essentially southern form call k'un ch'u that originated in Soochow. After Soochow fell to rebels in 1853, these rival forms rushed in to fill the capital's theaters.
The northern forms of opera were supported by the Dowager Empress (a contemporary of Queen Victoria) and rapidly became dominant. They differ from a southern chiefly by being more popularly oriented -- louder in instrumentation, less varied in melodic styles (relatively few tunes are used, with lyrics changed according to the situation), more colloquial in language and more vigorous and spectacular in stage action.
A short segment of Peking Opera was presented at Wolf Trap a few seasons ago as part of a more general survey of Chinese performing arts, but this is the first visit to Washington of a full-scale company. But then, there probably would have been little audience for Peking Opera before the development of mass interest in the Orient, which began about 20 years ago with American involvement in Vietnam.
That involvement was a major obstacle to American-Chinese cultural exchanges for a long time, and when relations between the two nations began to be more friendly, in the early and middle '70s, the Peking Opera itself was having its problems recovering from the effect of the Cultural Revolution. It has only recently been restored to a level which would justify sending it abroad.
Peking Opera usually deals with stories that are already well-known to the audience. Those in Western audiences who lack this advantage would probably do well to arrive a few minutes early, study the plotsummaries provided in the program, and then stop worrying about the story.