Modern Chinese theater has moved forward in leaps and starts. ``Wildman'' is the latest leap forward, and it has been startling Peking theater-goers since it opened last month at the People's Art Theater.
It is China's first play on ecology and environmental protection, and was written by one of the country's most controversial playwrights, Gao Xingjian.
The last of Mr. Gao's plays to be staged in Peking, ``Bus Stop,'' was closed down in 1983 after only 12 performances because of its provocative allusions to the ``lost decade'' of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
``Wildman'' is also controversial. But the controversy concerns art, not politics.
Gao's recent work is an issue-oriented play that breaks many conventions of Chinese theater and provokes the audience to think. It plunges beneath the hard surface of the national obsession with economic development to raise questions the country will be wrestling with for decades to come.
`` `Wildman' is about harmony,'' said director Lin Jiaohua, ``harmony between people and their nation, harmony among people themselves. It urges the audience to think about its relationship to nature and to culture, especially ancient culture.''
Director Lin is a close friend of the playwright, who is now studying in West Germany. Lin also staged ``Bus Stop'' and Gao's ``Warning Signal,'' a work about the problems of China's youth.
``Chinese audiences are used to seeing a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end -- this is traditional,'' said Lin. ``Also, most people think that a play is mainly the art of dialogue. This play breaks all these rules.''
Gao has set his provocative work deep in the vanishing forests of Sichuan Province. Throughout its three acts, superstitious peasants taunt visiting scientists and reporters with tales of the ``Wildman,'' the legendary ape-like creature said to stalk the remote mountain regions of the Chinese hinterland.
The play has no obvious storyline but follows the perambulations of a bemused and likable ecologist who is doing research on the Wildman. He encounters blundering woodcutters and local bureaucrats who bear responsibility for destruction of the forests.
There are many city folk tracking the Wildman, but unlike the ecologist, played by well-known actor Xiu Zhongdi, most of the investigators are more intent on collecting data than learning about the mysteries of man's relationship to the natural universe.
Besides the cry to ``save the forests'' and the question of whether the Wildman exists -- raised to eerie and existential heights -- there are several other themes in this complex play. These include love and marriage and the tension between the unschooled but savvy peasant folk and the educated but gullible urban visitors.
The audience is entertained with humorous and colorful scenes from peasant life and pointed commentary on the foibles of journalists, government officials, and the peasants themselves.
``Wildman's'' Western juxtapositions of time and space give the play a distinctly modern look, displacing the linear development of a single-theme plot. The blend of Chinese and Western styles of music and dance bring excitement and unpredictability to the performance, compensating those in the audience who can't make sense of the ``story.''
Asked about the play's mix of Chinese and foreign influences, director Lin said, ``I hold the same view as Mr. Gao: that we can produce better Chinese theater by putting Western and Chinese ways together.''
But the complexity of the play's thematic content and the violation of theatrical conventions have brought popular criticism and may force an early close of the production.
Some critics have said the play's messages and theatrical effects are often indistinguishable.
Predictably, ``Wildman'' was described by the Workers Daily as ``too far removed from the common people.'' The few other press reviews the play has received have shown little enthusiasm, though the work has caught the fancy of Peking's intellectual and student community.