Every writer has to deal with bad reviews -- not every writer has to deal with a changing socio-political climate, as Playwright Pu Wan Tin and the Ember Island Players do. Finale spoilers
-- Anxing Wu, Theater reviewer, Ember Island Times
To supplement their classic, "Love Amongst the Dragons", the Ember Island Players, including playwright, Pu Wan Tin, staged "The Boy in the Iceberg", a work chronicling the life of the Avatar Aang, and his struggle against Firelord Ozai. Pu Wan Tin is known for his exceptional devotion to detail in some of his works, so I was curious to see how he handled a subject that required both a extensive knowledge of history and geography, that can be difficult to gain in these troubled times, and a delicate hand to tell the story of a person so opposed to our great nation.
The basic story is familiar -- a hundred years after the defeat of the Air Nomads by Firelord Sozin's army, two Water Tribe members, Katara (played by Yu Shui), a waterbender, and her brother Sokka (Li Qing) discover that the young Air Nomad Avatar Aang (Ai Chun) had been sealed in an iceberg since before the attack. The three of them then set out to take revenge on the Fire Nation for the destruction of the Air Nomads.
While I have not studied the story of the Avatar to detail, I do consider myself an amateur scholar of historical plays, from the brilliantly moving Tragedy of Firelord Yontai by Zhi Jingeh, to the subversive classic "The Earth King's Dragon" by Lung Tien Xiang. Sadly, "The Boy in the Iceberg" will not be on the list of things I will recommend to students. While Pu Wan Tin did a credible job in adapting real-world events in such a way that they told a coherent story, the third act fell apart, to the point where I would have been satisfied to have left the theatre after Princess Azula(Min Mingtai) had killed the Avatar at Ba Sing Sei, despite the knowledge that the Avatar still lives.
The basic problem was this -- between Pu Wan Tin's writing and actress Ai Chun's presentation, Aang came across as a fundamental innocent who was treating the whole affair as a rather complicated game. Either they meant Aang to come off as a rather unnerving sociopath, or they overplayed the character's youthfulness to the point where the ending (speculation, but not unexpected, given that Pu Wan Tin is a stanch supporter of the current Firelord) made Firelord Ozai look like a schoolyard bully slapping down a first-year student, rather than dealing with a serious threat to the nation. And this, dear readers, was why I was so reluctant to see this -- either, one had to convince an audience that a twelve year old boy was enough of a villain that we would feel no remorse at his death, or one would have to create something subversive.
Or, perhaps the play was intended as a farce. While the costuming, backdrops and effects were exquisite, it didn't take a messenger hawk to see that Ai Chun was clearly not a 12-year-old boy. In addition, the Earthbending Master, Toph(Kun Junju), was described as a girl, but miscast as a large muscular man. The Ember Island Players are hardly short of competent female actresses, so I have to assume that this was done for the laughs, as was Shui's incessant over-acting, and Qing's treating the play as his own improv comedy stage. His jokes did get a bit better in the third act, when he stopped only making one-note jokes about being constantly hungry, but I was tuning out most of the actors by the end, and mostly trying to pay attention to the stagehands' lovely technical effects.
In conclusion, if you go expecting a farce about a tale of characitures attempting to overthrow the government, then you will enjoy "The Boy in the Iceberg". Also, if you are a fan if Min Mingtai's performances, then she is as lovely as ever. But, for a serious drama on Avatar Aang, I'd think that things need to simmer for another hundred years.
"First review's in," Kun said, holding up the newspaper.
"What does it say?" Yu leaned forward, nearly falling out of her costume. Behind her, Min and Ai chuckled.
"Anxing Wu hated it," Kun said.
"Give me that!" From behind them, Pu Wan grabbed the paper. The rest of the cast crowded around, trying to get a better look at the argument. His work done, Kun leaned against the door. "Why that plebeian! She clearly doesn't see my genius! I mean, she even liked Li's improv!"
"Does that mean you'll let me do it again?" Li asked. "Because that was some really great material."
"Look, the reviewer had nice things to say about you, Min!" Ai pointed.
"Really?" Min asked.
"And not me?" Yu said. "I threw my heart and soul into playing Katara."
"She thought you overdid it," Ai replied. "And well..." The rest of the cast tried to look comforting as Yu burst into tears and Kun helped her lie down.
"Well, this is some way to celebrate Sozin's Comet," Pu Wan said. "Has anyone heard back from Wang? I sent him to the capital to see if Firelord Azula would like the play at her coronation?"
"A hawk came in earlier, while we were doing the matinee," Ai reached up to grab the tube. She frowned. "Apparently Firelord Azula banished Wang for 'looking too much like her brother'. And we're all banished for doing a play about the Avatar." She sat down, hard. "Well... that sucks. And someone get Yu a tissue."
"But she won!" Pu Wan moaned. "It was supposed to be a triumph!"
"Well, you don't see people running around pretending to be firebenders," Ai said. "It's mostly kids who want to be Avatar."
"Hey, I met a pretty big Sokka fanboy, too!" Li added.
"Something's happening outside," Min said, peaking out the window.
"This day can't possibly get any worse," Pu Wan moaned.
The cast, still half in their costumes, managed to assemble outside to see the Imperial messenger gathering people into the center of the town. Most people looked as if they had come form a day on the beach, or the comet-viewing parties that many of the wealthy had had extending long into the night. "News from the capital!" the messenger cried. "Degree by His Majesty Prince Zuko, who as taken the throne by right of Agni Kai!"
"Zuko?" Min said.
"Oh, now what?" Pu Wan said.
"You said it, Mister Playwright," Ai shrugged.
"His Majesty has ordered a cessation of hostilities towards the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes, in preparation for his coronation."
"But what about the Phoenix King?" Pu Wan moaned.
The imperial messenger had just rerolled his message, and was reaching for the reigns of his ostrich-horse. He looked up at Pu Wan. "I don't know anything official, but rumors around the capital is that the he and the Avatar fought, and the Avatar did something and now he can't even light a candle. Prince Zuko's got him locked up now. That it? Because the ferry leaves soon, and I have three more towns to visit."
The Ember Island Players were impressed -- Pu Wan could carry on far more than Yu could at her most diva-like.
"You know," Li said later, after the full story came out, "I bet if we just change the ending, we could still do the play."
"I don't know how I'd feel about beating Firelord Ozai," Ai said.
"Well, it would mean you could play something other than the perky innocent," Min said. "You're getting typecast."
"What about you, Min?" Ai asked. "Can you do crazy?"
"I wouldn't mind trying."
About a week after the appearance of Sozin's Comet, Anxing Wu found a fruit basket on her doorway. There was no card, but it was a lot better than the nasty notes that she had been getting from enraged fanboys about her reviews. At the bottom was an invitation to Firelord Zuko's coronation -- near the back, and hard to see the action, but it was a better seat than most islanders got.