April 9th, 2010 5:33 pm | by KELLY CLARKE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

LIVE REVIEW: U-Theatre at the Newmark

Taiwan's U-Theatre 1

U-Theatre, one of Taiwan's national cultural treasures, spends most of its time at a outpost near the top of a hill outside of Taipei—surrounded by wind and rock. The group reportedly trains together for up to 16-hours a day—they meditate and eat together too—creating art together in the form of dance, song, theater, drumming and martial arts. They are an intense and spiritual bunch—and fully capable of transforming Portland's Newmark Theatre into a sacred space for 80-minutes on a Thursday night.

The 16-member group presented a work they call Meeting with Bodhisatta, which takes a quartet of appropriately confusing Buddhist verses ("One cudgel, like the sword of Vajra; one cudgel, like looking for a snake in the grass; one cudgel, like the roar of a lion; one cudgel, which is not a cudgel") as its jumping off point to ruminate on the process of enlightenment, specifically, a warrior's path. It also serves as a showcase for some truly phenomenal drumming (similar to the style locals would recognize from Portland Taiko) and martial arts dance—all performed in front of a set that looks like a giant Chinese temple.

It's a slow burner of a show, one that lulls you into a near meditative space with its constant choruses of drums and choirs of chants. Most of the first third of the work focuses on a lone bare chested man whose movements, based on tai chi poses, slowly gain in speed and strength, his muscles tense with each motion. He gains a bamboo staff, and later a drum, which he uses more as a partner than an instrument—using his staff to thump and smack out rhythms while performing jaw dropping barrel leaps, hanging in the air a second too long to seem humanly possible.

Taiwan's U-Theatre 3

As his journey continues the drums speed up, quartets of women tap out complex rhythms, whizzing their different sized drums across the stage floor on little wheeled dollies. Later the stage fills with even more drums, the lead performer thundering away on his own seven-drum set while the rest of the company thumps their own drums and clash hand cymbals in perfect rhythm like the most beatific toy soldiers imaginable. It is an exquisite, overwhelming spectacle, one that forces you to move your body in time as the drums' reverberations echo in your chest.

Near the end of the show, the soloist is joined by four more warriors on stage, all grasping their own staffs—each ready to perform his own dance with his own drum—reprising the lone performer's earlier dance. As they twirl and tap, spin and leap they often glance at each other—emitting feral screams and yells. They gauge each other's distance from the drums, slipping and sliding past one another, barely missing getting whacked on the face. At some point it becomes clear that this isn't as much a show as a ritual, one this artistic crew has honed day after day, year after year, always one step closer to perfection.

GO: U-Theatre performs at the Newmark Theatre at Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway., 248-4335. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday April 9-10. $20-$55. Tickets at ticketmaster.com or whitebird.org.

Photos of U-Theatre performing at the Newmark Theater on Thursday, April 8 courtesy of White Bird.

Taiwan's U-Theatre 2
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