Picture the ideal setting for a night of stand-up comedy in your mind. You could do this exercise in your head for weeks and you wouldn’t come up with the Zhengyici Peking Opera Theatre. Yet for a fortunate crowd of a few hundred “invitation only” guests, the 325-year-old theater hosted a one-time performance from the Emmy and Grammy award-winning American comedian Louis CK. Though designed for Peking opera performances, the theatre provided a unique Beijing backdrop for Louis to try out some of his new stand-up material forged after just three days of working in China to film an episode of his TV show Louis.
The iconic theater, considered the best of its class in the world, was perfect for the iconic comedian (also considered by many to be the best in his class). The theater is intimate enough that there were no bad seats in the house and the entire set up was “ jaw-droppingly awesome” to quote Michael McDermott, the founder of Gung-Ho Films, the Beijing-based production company that was used to film the television episode and scouted the location for the night of standup comedy. After walking down a hutong, passing through a small courtyard, and entering the theatre proper, guests were transported back in time as they contemplated the interior while settling into the plush theater seating. Were it not for the modern stage lighting, it would prove difficult to know in which century a performance was taking place. Like many imperial structures and temples, the stage is flanked with red columns and the beams and ceiling are richly detailed in blues, greens, and gold. The two-story space contains a rotunda in the middle of the stage and traditional panels depicting mountain scenery line the theater walls.
In this historic setting, Louis had the audience hanging on his humorous quips and observations. There is no denying that Louis has a keen sense of life’s irony. By shining the light of his wits on even the most mundane of topics, he kept the audience laughing for an hour over material about mobile phones of the future, children, marriage, divorce, death, and, of course, China. Louis dares to say the things that are simply on his mind, good or bad, about whatever topic he chooses. He frequently talks about himself in such self-deprecating bluntness that one cannot help but laugh (or groan) along with him.
Though you cannot catch Louis CK at the Zhengyici Theatre again, you can visit the theater for a Peking Opera performance. It is worth attending one simply for the shear majesty of a stage that has existed for over three centuries. As for Louis, you can see his Beijing show on the FX channel or, no doubt, on a DVD in Sanlitun, later this year. To use a word from Louis’ performance, it is sure to be simply “wonderful”.
The Zhengyici Peking Opera Theatre
(Chinese: 正乙祠戏楼; pinyin: Zhèngyǐcí Xìlóu)
220 Xiheyan Dajie, Xuanwu District
Photo courtesy of Christopher Lay