The Shanghai Peking Opera Company's brief season at Alice Tully Hall is one of those occasions that help add to the splendor and cosmopolitanism of the New York scene. But it is something more.
Splendid indeed are these actors and musicians from the People's Republic of China. Their presence, however, is in the nature of a tribute to the late Chow Hsin-Fang, a renowned actor and innovator of modern China who fell afoul of the Cultural Revolution.
The tribute is therefore a mini-sampling of the 1982 commemoration with which the Chinese are planning to honor Chow Hsin-Fang's contributions to his art and his country. Though firmly rooted in the Peking Opera tradition of stylized movement, speech, and music, the Ch'i Style developed by Mr. Chow stressed the importance of a character's inner motivations and psychology.
The present troupe is headed by Mr. Chow's son and successor, Chow Shao-Lin, making his first appearance in the West with the Shanghai Peking Opera Company. The works being performed at Alice Tully Hall consist of five plays from the company's classic repertoire.
Each program concludes with "The Secret Missive/Slaying of the Mistress," a drama that might almost be called a black comic-tragedy. The estranged mistress (Tung Chih-Ling) of a court secretary (Mr. Chow) tries to blackmail the secretary with some incriminating evidence he has carelessly let fall into her possession. Having exacted all of her conditions, the mistress nevertheless announces that she is going to the authorities with her evidence. This is too much for the distraught secretary, who dispatches her in a climax of choreographically stylized fury.
The prelude to the final confrontation is provided by the marvelous gyrations of the Emissary, A Chingm ("big painted face") role acted by the veteran Wang Cheng-Ping. The mounting conflict between the wily mistress and the beleaguered secretary is advanced by Mr. Chow and Miss Wang with growing emotional intensity and -- particularly on Miss Wang's part -- with a great deal of sly humor.
In the tradition of Peking Opera, the enemy hordes are for this occasion represented by a succession of actors. Each brandishes two flags whose pointed angles symbolize the chariots. As an enemy defender climbs to the top of the small platform that serves as the mountain peak, the warrior engages him in combat.
The centerpiece of this Ch'i Style evening, is "four scholars," in which an innkeeper (Mr. Chow), a former court official, manages to get hold of a letter falsely implicating his god-daughter in a murder. The shrewd innkeeper copies the contents onto the lining of his robe, thus apparently foiling the design, and the clownish messengers who are carrying the letter go on their unsuspecting way. Here, as in the final play, Mr. Chow demonstrates the uses of a lengthy beard not only as makeup but as a kind of prop with splendid visual possibilities.
Except that they use only crimson drapes for scenery -- relying on gorgeous costumes and a few pieces of movable furniture -- the Shanghai Peking Opera productions are in every sense total theater. In addition to the actors' command of the vocal techniques for speaking and singing, and of line and dance, there is the constant use of music. Largely percussive, it is played by an eight-man onstage orchestra comprising a variety of drums, gongs, a clapper, cymbals, and Wu Chin, a distant cousin of the violin.
But this is essentially an actors' theater in which everything is calculated to enhance the play-acting itself. The histrionics range from the subtlest to the broadest effects: They are by turns deliberate, suddenly agile, always intensely expressive and graceful in their stylized fasion.
The non-Chinese-speaking spectator must rely on program synopses to guide him through the plots. (A simultaneous translation system would be a big help.) But even the uninitiated can admire and to some extent respond to this theater based on a tradition steeped in a disciplined art and revitalized by the creative innovations of Chow Hsin-Fang.
"Blocking the Horse" and "Chase Under the Moonlight" are the other two pieces in the Shanghai Peking Opera Company's repertory at Lincoln Center (through Aug. 23).