The fascinating theater art of Ping Chong

Two threads run through the theater art of Ping Chong. One is a love of both art and science - two cultures often separated in modern life, but solidly joined in Chong's work.

The other is a fascination with Western society, which Chong views as a self-proclaimed ''outsider'' - raised in New York but deeply influenced by his Chinese ancestry and heritage.

''I'm a first-generation newcomer,'' Chong says, ''and all my themes stem from that fact. I had to learn to see the Western world, to be a part of it.''

And this, he feels, puts him in a privileged position. ''Every good artist observes the world as if it were new,'' he explains. ''It all comes down to seeing the human experience as a wonder - with a kind of astonishment - while looking at people objectively, as rather droll and peculiar creatures that happen to exist in the universe.''

What do Chong's ideas mean in practice? His latest play, ''A Race'' - seen recently at New York's respected La Mama theater - is a good example. The plot, a fantasy about clever animals able to pass as human beings, was inspired by an old movie thriller and a zoological article. The stagecraft was an exuberant mix of media, including dance, music, projected images, live actors, and a friendly dog. The main theme was how subtly interwoven are social, cultural, and educational forces - all of which were keenly probed in about an hour, with enough broad laughs to delight even children in the audience.

Chong's troupe, the Fiji Company, is now in its 12th year. ''I'm pretty family oriented,'' says the director, explaining that he likes to work regularly with the same team. Besides appearing in New York, its home base, the group has toured widely in Europe and the United States.

Chong has also co-directed two public-TV specials. His awards range from the prestigious Obie (for distinguished Off Broadway work) to fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and, most recently, the Guggenheim Foundation. The projects now brewing in his mind include a work on ''the anthropology of early America,'' an adaptation of Buchner's drama ''Woyzeck,'' and ''a sort of bestiary.''

Away from the theater, discussing his work in a modest Greenwich Village pastry shop, Chong reflects in his personal manner his style as an artist. He speaks rapidly and openly; his eyes literally twinkle with energy. And in case you think his ideas are too futuristic, he covers his close-cropped hair with an old-fashioned beret.

He has been busy lately, and growing audiences have been warming to his work. So have critics. Mel Gussow of the New York Times has lauded the ''precision and . . . professionalism'' of his art, saying he ''turns dreams into visions and creates a theater of illusion.'' In a Village Voice article on ''A Race,'' reviewer Erika Munk praised all its multimedia elements as ''striking.''

Yet like all true explorers, Chong takes too many risks to please everyone, and some observers give him only mixed ratings. Gerald Rabkin, a theater professor at Rutgers University, applauds his ''acute intelligence'' and ''ability to synthesize different themes.'' Yet he feels that Chong's work misses ''the unsettling undercurrents'' that energize the best theater experiments. ''The tensions in his work are not accepted and allowed to enrich it,'' Rabkin told me. ''I have trouble relating to it because it's too precisely balanced, too refined. . . .''

Chong is used to controversy, and he takes criticism in stride. If he has a quarrel with some newspaper reviewers, it's that they're biased against his ''imagistic'' form of theater, and leave no ''leeway for error'' when judging it. ''They forget we're experimenting,'' he says, ''and it's not going to be golden every time!''

Among the ingredients of those experiments, the most striking is Chong's way of mixing media. Filmed objects and people often mingle with those onstage, and taped sound effects may weave around music and spoken words.

Another characteristic, in keeping with his own self-image, is his fondness for characters who are somehow outsiders - an innocent boy entering a decadent city, a former slave, a criminal, even Lazarus returning from the grave.

Indeed, sometimes his preoccupations lead to cold and distanced results, as in ''A.M./A.M. the Articulated Man,'' a metaphorical drama about a runaway robot. Yet in a deft work like ''Anna Into Nightlight,'' a romantic fantasy about two sisters, Chong's multimedia blitz is a perfect complement to the poetry and ideas that run through the action. At his best, he stimulates both the mind and the senses from several directions at once, allowing us to ''catch clues on the wing,'' in critic Gussow's phrase.

Since there aren't many precedents for it, Chong's work is hard to pin down with labels. One tag often used is ''performance art,'' a fashionable phrase that critics apply when nothing else seems to fit.

Chong doesn't mind the term, as long as people don't think his work is ornery just because it's unpredictable. In his view, performance art is the only choice available to an ''alien'' who doesn't want ''to simply buy into another culture'' and do what the traditions dictate.

''I can't identify with traditional plays,'' he says. ''I'd be happy to direct one, if I thought I could bring something to it, and I could probably do it well. But as a person in exile, I have to find a new form of my own - an expression that's true to my roots.''

What are those roots? The most important element, and one of Chong's first loves, is Chinese opera - which goes back for two generations in his family, and employed both his parents before they emigrated. ''That's what first enthralled me,'' Chong recalls. ''Also, as far back as I can remember, I drew. I guess I was very imaginative, and needed an outlet for it.''

Not surprisingly, he stayed with the arts. In the 1960s he was particularly drawn to the experimental ''happenings'' that involved visual artists, dancers, poets, and composers. Since all these fields impressed him, he plunged into all of them. ''At art school I studied everything from photography to poster design and silk-screening,'' he recalls. Later he took a degree from a film school, then met and studied with Meredith Monk, herself a respected composer, musician, choreographer, dancer, and director.

Besides enjoying the exploratory aspects of his work, Chong feels the search for new forms and expressions is an antidote to subtle pressures toward sameness in the arts. ''There's a lot of work that's insidiously conformist,'' he warns, ''especially in visual art. And the higher you go, the more conformist it gets. It appears to be otherwise, but there's a very fascistic ruling class of art - and if you don't fit the right genre, you're out.''

In his eyes, of course, this makes him an outsider in yet another category, but that's all right with him. ''I'm very interested in finding fresh means for working with narrative,'' he says, ''and that has to involve a certain amount of challenge. Someone asked me recently what state I'd like the audience to be in when they come to my work. I said - in a spirit of adventure!''

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