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Reviewed by:
  • Terracotta Warriors
  • Jr. Kevin J. Wetmore
Terracotta Warriors. Written, produced, and directed by Dennis K. Law, MD. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, Los Angeles, California. 23 September 2006.

Terracotta Warriors, which tells the story of emperor Qin Shi Huang (259–210 bce), who united China and was buried with seven thousand terracotta warriors, is a "World Premiere Action Musical" (information and descriptive quotations are all taken from the Terracotta Warriors program). The production first premiered 29 May 2002 at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts in Canada, and has been touring ever since. Its creator, Dennis K. Law, MD, claims that it is fusion Chinese theatre, but the reality is more complex. The production features both original Western and Chinese music, composed by Hao Wei Ya, combining recorded music with live singing and percussion, Western and Chinese dance (for example, in one scene, a ballet is performed side-by-side with a traditional water sleeve dance), and Western and Chinese theatre techniques.

The original project was a Chinese-Canadian production, conceived, written, and directed by Law, who oversaw every single aspect of production. Law was a surgeon in Denver, Colorado, who retired, bought the Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts, and developed three action musicals: Tang Concubines, Of Heaven and Earth, and, of course, the production under review here.

Law is the inventor of the "action musical," a term he coined and which the program defines as "the most sophisticated combination of human movement ever put on stage!" The action musical is designed to appeal to Broadway [End Page 169] audiences, but uses both Chinese and Western movement techniques, dwelling on "the technical virtuosity and expression of the human body" over "acting ability, comedic qualities, and pleasing western tunes."

Terracotta Warriors is an episodic musical in twenty-four scenes. Beginning with the defeat of the Qi army by Qui Shi Huang, who is then crowned emperor of a unified China, the audience is shown a variety of often unrelated scenes. Episodes range from the selection of Meng Ying as the emperor's concubine; to the unification of currency, measures, and irrigation systems; to the exposure of conspiracies to assassinate Qui; to the affair of Meng Ying with her original fiancé (Yang Ming); to the arrival of Qui into the afterlife with his army of terracotta warriors. The actual appearance of the terracotta warriors figurines for which Qui is known (due to their inclusion in his tomb) is anticlimactic at best. Most of the warriors are painted on a backdrop and the rest, a squad of perhaps two dozen, marching out of step at this performance, seemed small and uninspiring. It reminded me of Shakespeare's apologies in Henry V, asking pardon for attempting to represent something huge on a paltry stage and requesting the audience "into a thousand parts divide one man" (prologue, 1.24). Given these warriors are the titular characters, it is remarkable that they appear only in the last five minutes of a three-hour performance, and their sole purpose is to march in place.

The action musical in general and Terracotta Warriors in particular is fusion theatre for a fusion audience, a blend of Chinese expatriates, martial arts film aficionados, Chinese theatre enthusiasts, and musical fans of many different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Law said to Lynne Heffley in an 18 September interview for the Los Angles Times, "I decided to use my Western perspective and take the fantastic elements of Chinese musical theatrical arts and weave them together in a way that can be appreciated by international audiences and doesn't depend on language being translated" (2006: E3). To that end, there is no dialogue. While the concept of a fusion theatre not rooted in spoken language is not original to Law, the production also features Chinese and English subtitles on electronic light boards to the sides of the stage, which translate the songs and summarizes the action. The production thus never escapes the dominance of language. The action itself is so stylized as to make following the narrative difficult unless one follows the subtitles or the program.

The production seems much more a historical pageant than narrative dance-drama...