prusik: Newton fractal centered at zero (Default)
2012-12-08 09:06 pm

So I finally saw Chinglish...

More specifically, the Lyric Stage production of Chinglish. I actually had a ticket for the original Broadway production. Unfortunately, Hurricane Irene intervened. I couldn't get down to NYC and, in any case, the performance had been cancelled. The production itself had closed before I could plan another trip down to see it. So, no Chinglish for me unless one of the area's fine regional theater's programmed it. In the case of Chinglish, that's ostensibly one reason to do a Broadway production, to encourage regional productions. (Sadly, it's hard to imagine a play where entire scenes are conducted entirely in Mandarin having a successful Broadway run.) Lyric Stage mounted a production of it, so over a year after when I'd planned to see it, I finally saw it. And...

As it turned out, after this performance, WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti would interview David Henry Hwang and the cast as part of an audience talkback. I don't usually stay for audience talkbalks. They tend to resemble bad con panels. E.g., "This isn't a question. It's more of a statement..." Or if it is a question, well, at a talkback for the Broadway production of Assassin's someone asked the actress playing Sarah Jane Moore, essentially, about her acting choice to sing so poorly. Except it wasn't an acting choice. *facepalm* However, this talkback would have a professional interviewer, not to mention David Henry Hwang, so I stayed for that too.

As for the play, I had three main reactions: Wow, this may be David Henry Hwang's best work yet. Hey, this is a terrific production that does justice to the text. And finally, *sigh*, I wish I'd seen the Broadway production.

Not all of David Henry Hwang's plays work. I saw Golden Child during its Broadway run. I could feel him reaching for the metaphor, grasping at generational parallels but failing. However, he's a terrific playwright. Even plays of his that don't entirely work have elements in them worth watching. (This is to say I don't regret having seen Golden Child and am curious about the recent off-Broadway revisal.)

Chinglish, however, works. Hwang lands on a solid metaphor. He starts with the premise of a business deal with people whose language he does not speak then spins out from there. That notion of miscommunication plays out in several spheres at once in ways that reinforce the central story. He starts with the literal misunderstandings. As he works out his premise, by the end of the play, he has shown characters who ostensibly speak the same language, but really don't. If the play starts off too obviously--characters who will fall in love with each other have a literal language chasm--it quickly goes to more interesting places.

I love that Hwang inverts or subverts the tropes of the "Western explores alien culture" story. The American is not in a position of power. It's not even really his story. Certainly, the Vice Minister with whom he has an affair has a meatier and more interesting role. If he gets the last word, she gets all the interesting turns and most of the audience sympathy.

The play is always sold by pushing the funny mistranslations between English and Chinese committed by the play's characters. Fortunately, Hwang gets past that to questions of cultures and relationships. The play does a deft job of interweaving the personal relationships with the business relationships with the culture clashes. There's a rich vein of material there. I don't know that he mines it fully, but he mines it profitably. Like I said, this may be the best play he's written yet.

Lyric Stage has mounted a solid production with rich, detailed performances. Done on a unit set, this production is undoubtedly more abstract than the original. Part of the reason for this is that this is a regional production. Given the space and budget, the set can only be so elaborate. Unit sets with a few actor-driven set pieces is par for the course, even for plays that take place in many different locations. The director made some choices that make a virtue of the necessity, and for the most part, they work. Parts of the play ends up taking place in the limbo space of his memory. The play is a flashback bookended by direct address to the audience. Placing scenes in limbo works for me. (This is not to say that I wouldn't want to see a production with realistic sets.)

The actors all do terrific work. Barlow Adamson and Alexander Platt are both more than credible as the American businessman and the English business consultant. They both start with the requisite bluster then go onto more nuanced places as their lives spin out of control. Michael Tow channels the veteran of the Cultural Revolution Chinese bureaucrat so well (down to the cadence of his Chinese) that it's scary. Celeste Oliva has the play's hardest role as Xi Yan, the main driver of the plot. Over the course of two languages--the character is nominally bilingual--she gains and betrays pretty much everybody's trust while maintaining the audience's sympathy. It's a pretty terrific performance. However...

And this is why I wish I'd seen the Broadway production...

The Broadway cast was bilingual. The casting in the Lyric Stage production, as good as the actors are, is odd. How well each actor speaks Chinese is inversely proportional to how often they have to do it. I assume this is a coincidence. During the talkbalk, the actors pointed out who were native speakers and who weren't. However, it was obvious from their first moments in the play. From smallest role to largest role:

Tiffany Chen, Chen Tang and Liz Eng are fluent. They sound like native speakers but play incidental characters. Of the plays several scenes entirely or almost entirely in Chinese, the one that worked to perfection as the one where the brunt of the dialogue fell on the three of them. (As we found out in the talkback, they are native speakers. They speak both English and Mandarin in standard accents.)

Michael Tow sounds as if he's worked really hard on his Chinese over years. His Mandarin is wrong toned often enough that I notice. In a weird way, that's a good thing because it means I know what he was trying to say without reading the surtitles. In the program and during the talkbalk, he credits his tutor who happened to be in the audience for this performance. His part is entirely in Chinese and he speaks really well, but even if he gets the cadence right, he never sounds native. Now, in real life, sounding like a learned expert in the language is not a bad thing. However, in this play, he plays a native but he never really convinces me.

Alexander Platt plays a learned expert in the language who has lived in China for decades. In other words, if he sounded like Michael Tow (or the three I mentioned before him), that would have been spot on. For example, John Pasden on ChinesePod speaks Chinese about as well as any native speaker does. Alexander Platt can certainly toss off lines as if he were fluent, but what he says isn't really understandable. I think he does better than Celeste Oliva but I don't know if his diction actually is better, if I'm grading him on a curve because he's not expected to sound native, or if I'm grading him on a curve he's not ethnically Chinese.

Celeste Oliva acts her part well, but when she speaks Mandarin, I can't believe that her character grew up in China. As an example aside from the wrong toned thing, she uses an American 'r' in place of the pinyin 'r'. The two don't sound anything alike. The latter doesn't exist in English. The former doesn't exist in Chinese. She does get lots of points for launching into her dialogue as if she were fluent. She never sounds stilted. Like I said, on the whole, it's a terrific performance, but how she speaks messes with the verisimilitude. (What's odd is that she does a very authentic sounding Chinese accent. When she speaks English, she's much more credible.)

As an aside, I apparently saw this with a class of people taking Chinese. I heard them remark during intermission about how awful the Mandarin was. So it's not just me. Also, I hear fluent Mandarin on the T all the time. The audience where no one understands Mandarin is probably a rare one.

Barlow Adamson is the actor who doesn't follow the pattern. He has a huge part but he plays the American businessman so, of course, he gets to be a monoglot. He only has one scene where he has to speak any actual Mandarin. Part of the point is that the character mispronounces what he's trying to say. Since we see the translation of what he ends up saying surtitled, ideally, he should mispronounce words in exactly the right ways so that what he ends up saying matches the surtitles. This didn't happen. (OTOH, I don't think this was a big deal either. The scene was still funny.)

I've probably spent more space on this than the rest of the review combined so lest I give the wrong impression, there's one thing I need to make clear: I'm not saying that the actors must to be fluent to play these roles. They're actors. They just need to make me believe that they're fluent. For example, good classically trained singers, especially ones trained from childhood, make their livings convincing people that they are fluent in whatever languages they sing in.

In this production, though, it does feel like a missed opportunity. This production was so good that I wish they'd gotten this right too. If I'd seen the Broadway production, I don't think I would have gotten pulled out with every sentence. (One reason that the scene I referred to earlier with Tiffany Chen, Chen Tang and Liz Eng worked so well for me, I suspect, is because I wasn't spending any time trying to figure out what the hell they were saying.)

[Incidentally, during the talkbalk, they talked about the difficulties of performing a bilingual play when the actors are not bilingual. One of the things they mentioned was that they absolutely had to get everything right because if they go up on a line, they are ill-equipped to ad-lib and besides, they're being surtitled. This is interesting because, if I believe the surtitles, someone skipped a line in the performance I saw.]

I'm glad I saw it. If you're in the area, you should see it too. I'm still sad that Hurricane Irene prevented me from seeing the Broadway production.