Li Yu’s always sweet, sometimes Byzantine story follows two beauties who attempt to become wife and wife despite the societal complications of their time. Cui Jianyun (Emma Katene and Kyra Basabas) arrives with her maid, Hualing (Nicole Topp-Annan and Finnian Nacey), to a Buddhist nunnery housed by Jingguan (Carson Bluck and Kate Hooker). Jingguan introduces Cui Jianyun to Cao Yuhua (Georgia May and Yasmin Golding), who is visiting the nunnery with her maid, Liuchun (Katherine Wisenewski and Cassidy Cruz). The two belles are immediately smitten, and as they write poetry for one another, they become more and more attached. Their story is not without its obstacles, however; Cui Jianyun is married to Fan Jiefu (Daniel Fitzpatrick and Penny Himmelmoe) as his first wife, and Cao Yuhua’s father, Cao Yourong (Corey Wills and Izabelle Brown), wouldn’t dare let his daughter become Fan Jiefu’s concubine. Throughout the trials, tears, and heart-warming moments, the Fragrance Gods (Morgan Clark, Aidin Ralfe, Peter van Rooyen, Jigna Chhika, and Kate Hooker) implore the audience and the characters to “just trust fate”, as what is fated to happen, will happen.
The entire cast does a fantastic job handling the production; their control over the stage and ability to complement one another in no doubt comes from the environment Evans created in their rehearsal process. I reveal in how well the actors mesh with one another. The Fragrance Gods with their narrative interludes, interjections, and acrobatic set changes are one such example. Another is the reactive, highly comedic pairings of Hualing and Liuchun that are as heart-warming as their mistresses at times.
Watching the performers during their preview nights, two are particularly noteworthy for their commitment, characterisation, and comedy. Fitzpatrick’s portrayal of the rather foolish scholar Fan Jiefu elicits raucous laughter from his audience with every step or comment. He brings an obliviousness to the character exacerbated by his rather excitable delivery, making him one of the most comical characters of the season. Hooker’s Jingguan is another I find incredibly entertaining. She visualises for us the cogs turning when the nun takes a gander at understanding the belles' love at first scent. Hooker makes use of the entire stage and then some for her song, Jingguan, which is so delightful and camp I’m sad there's not more of Jingguan in the show.
The cast alternates from night to night; Jingguan, the belles, their maids, Fan Jiefu, and Cao Yourong all alternate performers. Dual casting is always a risk, and in a university setting, sometimes a necessary evil to find enough roles for the students. However, Evans’ decision here amplifies the production vastly. One of my favourite things about seeing Two Belles in Love is how each actor has crafted their own, personalised version of whomever they are playing for their performance nights. Each night is its own experience, almost feeling like two different productions. Even the titular belles themselves have different nuances depending on the performer. Katene and Basabas are two sides of the same coin with their representations of Cui Jianyun, with the former providing a gentle calm to Cui Jianyun and the latter a contrasting intensity. May and Golding, the performers playing Cao Yuhua, also exhibit similar but different values; May’s Cao Yuhua is soft, butterfly-like, and Golding provides an unparalleled innocence. To see performers garner authorship over a character they share is rare and divine. I applaud the sheer effort everyone has contributed throughout their rehearsal process to create such wonder.
The casting also comments on gender in performance, with several performers playing characters whose gender identity differs from their own; Bluck as Jingguan, Nacey as Hualing, Himmelmoe as Fan Jiefu, and Brown as Cao Yourong. Never once when watching do I think about the actor’s gender – I’m solely focused on the character. I’ll single out Brown here for her phenomenal, daunting portrayal of Cao Yourong. There’s plenty of humour in what she provides, but we’re not laughing at the fact she’s playing a man. We’re laughing because the quirks Brown brings to the angry old man and her amplification of the character’s own foolishness are “wonderful”!
Even now, I sit bobbing my head along to several of the musical numbers. Ailise Beales has outdone herself with her composition. Each song harmonises so perfectly with the play, acting as a device that both contributes to the story and helps create relieving interludes where we can relish in the musical moments alone. Her musical mastery tears at my heart when I hear the belles sing Empty and makes it gallop whenever they duet with More. There’s such a variety from the score too, especially with the two mischievous maids, Hualing and Liuchun. Liuchun treats her audience to a little unnamed song about her Cao Yuhua’s “dis-ease”, as her father calls it, while Hualing stirs a rise out of Cui Jianyun with Hey Ho!. Both are sure to leave the crowd in hysterics.
An array of percussion instruments and a guitar are played by onstage musicians who rotate each night depending on who is performing. Some may find the gongs and bells distracting as it weaves through the dialogue, but I would wholeheartedly disagree. I see the inclusion as a way to punctuate the dialogue, and it assists in the merging of performance practices. Sometimes cues are missed, which does slacken the pace, but when the actors are bang on the gong, it provides a meaty punch behind every single syllable.
For the most part, I’m totally immersed in the beautiful, colourful world created. The whole experience is poetic. The set, designed and constructed by Katene and Topp-Annan, takes my breath away. From the intricate floor pattern to the hand-painted backdrops that alter the setting, everything fits and helps take the audience on the play’s journey. The costumes, designed and sourced by Golding, Clark, and Cruz, also build on to the world – they dress Cia Jianyun in a vibrant blue and Cao Yuhua in a sweet rose, creating a lovely contrast. I am also drawn to the simplicity of the costumes for the Fragrance Gods, each of whom adorns plain white clothing accented with a coloured chiffon-like cape.
The show does, however, break my immersion whenever the characters are reading or creating poetry because the pages they use are noticeably blank. Maybe it is a matter of tightening up their pen strokes to give the impression they’re hitting the page, or ensuring the audience doesn’t see the ‘written’ side of the parchment, or maybe the ‘real props’ weren’t ready for the preview nights. But when I can see there’s nothing written there, I’m completely ripped out of the beautiful poetic imagery created by the words, the space, and the bodies.
The work and effort fed into this production by Evans and her team is exceptional, and they recreate a piece of theatre that is as relevant now if not more than it was 350 years ago. The production combines sharp directing, engaging performances, and incredible music to create sheer poetry for the eyes and ears. Two Belles in Love: A Romance is a love story that creates its own fate and breaks boundaries; it’s so uplifting to see a story like this as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I feel so elated after seeing their show, filled with happiness and the most lovey-dovey of feelings. Prepare yourselves, Wellington and beyond: here are eighteen artists ready to take you by storm.
Two Belles in Love: A Romance runs until Saturday 27 May up at Victoria University in Studio 77. To book tickets, head to their eventfinda page; you may also purchase tickets via door sales in cash. To learn more about the show and its cast, head to their Facebook event page.