Tired of staying home waiting out the cold Changchun winter, but not in the mood for a night at Mayflowers one, two or three? Instead, consider spending a far cheaper evening watching a performance of Er’renzhuan (二人转), a north-eastern Chinese style of stand-up comedy that includes death-defying acrobatics, traditional Chinese dances and high-flying kung fu between the laughs.
A night at Er’renzhuan is never dull
Er’renzhuan is so named because its main feature is a back-and-forth comedy duet, generally between a man and a woman. The stage is set similarly to that of a late-night talk show, with a “house band” seated at the far right. The musicians are equipped with piano, drums and er’hu -- a two-stringed instrument similar to a violin that emits an appealing and instantly familiar high-pitched squeal.
What to expect
In a typical Er’renzhuan performance, the man enters first, often while singing a hit Chinese song in a humorous style. He then begins a loose routine of songs, jokes, and light banter with the house band. Before long, his female partner joins him onstage, and they play off each other in a conversational and seemingly improvised manner.
Much of the comedic portion of Er’renzhuan derives from observational humour, similar to the style popular abroad, though at times it also hinges on peculiarities of the Chinese language. “A sexual deviant’s mouth is never dry,” remarked one man, while another insisted on referring to the house bandleader as a “test tube baby.” Admittedly, the comedy can be difficult to follow but much of the humour is visual, with the comedians wheeling around, gesticulating wildly, wielding props like a massive lighter, and appearing to knock each other about. The men also seem particularly fond of dressing in women’s clothing and acting the part, while being bossed around by the female half of the duo.
What beauty to behold at Er’renzhuan!
Singing, whether alone or as a duet, is a principle part of Er’renzhuan, and the performers often have lovely voices — at least when loveliness is the goal. The songs are usually covers of recent hits, though original lyrics are sometimes sung over popular melodies. Older or more traditional songs are also performed, and for these the women affect a piercing style similar to Beijing opera.
In addition to singing and joke telling, Er’renzhuan performers display a number of talents to comedic effect. The young men and women are often skilled gymnasts, turning hands-free cartwheels and seemingly painful handsprings in which the head is substituted for the hands. Others are talented musicians, and it is both delightful and hilarious to see some plump and rigorously undignified performer pause his lechery for a moment, pick up an er’hu and play a fast-paced, error-free tune, all the while maintaining a blandly impassive countenance. Many Er’renzhuan performers are also skilled impersonators, adopting the garb and manner of real life celebrities and well-known characters from popular Chinese movies and television programs.
Delicate matters are negotiated at Er’renzhuan.
The interactions between the men and women can be endearing, as if the audience were given a window onto the private bickering of a quick-witted couple — which the performers often are. There are also mother-son duos, in which the sons are vainglorious blowhards and the moms are immensely critical shrews. The conversation proceeds at a quick pace, and the women hold their own, berating the men to the audience’s delight. If his counterpart is beautiful, the man will be quite forward with her; he is mostly rebuffed. It is also common to see actors and comedians, famous in Jilin province, perform at some of Changchun’s many Er’renzhuan theatres.
The show never stops
During the interlude between each comedy act there is a performance of dance, acrobatics or kung fu. These sideshows are worth the price of admission alone, especially for those with no Chinese language ability. The dancers tend to be willowy local dance students performing delicate kicks and twirling umbrellas in near-perfect unison. The acrobatics are stunning, and might feature a strongman balancing a ladder on his head and taking a stroll, while his partner climbs the ladder and does a handstand atop it. Or one might see a young man and woman, surely not out of high school, holding onto a swing suspended from the ceiling and flying high overhead, posing romantically like something out of a Chinese legend. The kung fu is what might be expected, though it is no less exciting for it. During one such performance, Shaolin monks mock-sparred and displayed their individual mastery of complex martial forms. One monk gave a visceral demonstration of harnessing his qi, and then — shirtless — was laid upon the points of several spears held by his fellows and hoisted aloft. Note that the sideshows for each Er’renzhuan performance are variable; some nights there will be kung fu and dance, but no acrobatics, while on other nights there will be acrobatics and dance, but no kung fu.
Such otherworldly flights of fancy can be seen at Er’renzhuan.
Where to find Er’renzhuan
Should any of this pique your interest, there are a number of locations around Changchun where Er’renzhuan is performed nightly, but the two main theatre companies are Dongbeifeng Theatre and Heping Grand Theatre. The former has a shorter history but is considered to have spiffier auditoriums, while the latter is the original errenzhuan theatre company in Changchun. As the performers work every night, there is some overlap in content between locations. However, no matter the venue or day of the week, the spectator will be in for a wonderful, sometimes incomprehensible, but always exciting night at the theatre. Just be careful not to buy the high-priced front row tickets, or you’ll be in for a roasting!
Dongbeifeng Er’renzhuan Theatre 东北风二人转剧场
Minkanglu LocationView In Map
Address: 26 Minkang Lu, near Ziqiang Jie, Nanguan District, Changchun
Tel: 0431 8897 3444
Opening hours: Mon-Sun, 19:40 - 22: 40
Tickets: 30-80 RMB
Getting there: Take the 281, 256, 226, 260 or 5路(lu) bus to 民康路三道街车站(Minkanglu/Sandaojie Chezhan). The theatre is clearly visible from the bus stop.
Heping Grand Theatre Renmin Dajie LocationView In Map
Address: 295 Renmin Dajie, near Beian Lu, Nanguan District, Changchun
Tel: 0431 8276 3391
Opening hours: Mon-Sun, 19:40-22: 40
Tickets: 50-150 RMB
Getting there: Take the 221, 306 or 62 bus to 胜利公园 (Shengli Gongyuan). The theatre is right across the street.
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