BWW Review: Idioms On the Loose in CHINGLISH
Written by David Henry Hwang, Directed by Larry Coen; Scenic Design, Dahlia Al-Habieli; Costume Design, Emily Woods Hogue; Lighting Design, Matthew Whiton; Sound Design, Arshan Gailus; Projection Design, Garrett Herzig; Language Coach, Gail Wang; Production Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Stage Manager, Sarah Morrison
CAST: Barlow Adamson, Tiffany Chen, Liz Eng, Celeste Oliva, Alexander Platt, Chen Tang, Michael Tow
Every now and then, someone posts a paragraph on Facebook that is written in English, but with all of the letters jumbled in the middle of the words, to prove that the mind is able to unscramble the mess and read the message anyway. David Henry Hwang's play Chinglish sort of attempts the same thing, except that a large proportion of the dialogue in the script is written in Mandarin and the audience still follows the story nicely, albeit with the aid of translations projected overhead. In the case of the production onstage now through December 23rd at the Lyric Stage Company, Director Larry Coen has done a masterful job of illuminating the miscommunications among his characters to ensure that the audience doesn't miss so much as a participle or a predicate.
Tony and Obie Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang's (M. Butterfly) 2011 play follows American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson) on his journey through the minefield of miscommunication and mistranslation in the city of Guiyang, China, as he tries to establish a foothold for his Ohio sign company. Unfamiliar with the language and culture, he employs Peter Timms (Alexander Platt) as a consultant, an expatriate Brit with a hidden agenda. Together, they have presentations and negotiations with the local Minister Cai Guoliang (Michael Tow) and Vice-Minister Xi Yan (Celeste Oliva) and their translator Miss Qian (Tiffany Chen) to broker a deal. It quickly becomes both obvious and hilarious that translating English to Mandarin and Mandarin to English doesn't always produce the same meaning.
Many of the laughs come from the awkward translations that are projected overhead as the characters earnestly try to converse, only to show their frustration in countless ways. When Cavanaugh and Xi Yan have their first private meeting in a bar without benefit of translators, body language and charades become important tools in their efforts to understand each other. As the Vice-Minister becomes his ally in procuring the contract, Cavanaugh develops feelings for her and warms to his new surroundings, gradually leaving Timms out in the cold. However, even as some secrets are revealed, the foreign culture remains shrouded in mystery and very little can be taken at face value. Cavanaugh finds himself to be a stranger in a strange land without a satisfactory guide book and learns some difficult lessons.
Conversely, Adamson stands in to guide the audience through the thicket of thorny misunderstandings and misrepresentations, reflecting our confusion and triumphant "ah hah!" moments. He and Oliva work well in tandem to convey the initial wariness and burgeoning relationship shared by this couple from two dissimilar worlds. She gives a beautifully nuanced performance as a high-powered woman who is compelled to honor her responsibilities and traditions while showing no emotion, yet craving romance and hoping for a different life. Together, they are very engaging and watchable as the heart of Hwang's story.
Platt does an incredible job of delivering his Mandarin-heavy lines with feeling and comedic timing. Like most of the cast, he had no prior knowledge of the challenging language, but did his homework under instruction from Language Coach Gail Wang. As the local functionary, Tow plays his cards close to the vest, giving away little to the American during their negotiations. It is, perhaps, a small detail, but he helps to flesh out his character by the way he manipulates his ever-present cigarettes. Tiffany Chen easily transitions from the inept translator to a hard-edged prosecutor. As her replacement interpreter, Chen Tang has an in-your-face demeanor that he plays for deserved laughs, and later is a judge who is excitedly interested in Cavanaugh's past as an Enron officer. Liz Eng choreographed and performs an original fan dance during a dream-like monologue delivered by Oliva.
Dahlia Al-Habieli designed the handsome set with lighting design by Matthew Whiton. Emily Woods Hogue's costume design primarily consists of business attire, but Chen's cherry red spike heels are a quirky focal point and Eng's traditional Chinese garb for the fan dance is evocative. Arshan Gailus is the sound designer and Garrett Herzig plays a pivotal role as projection designer (we'd be lost without him).
Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos has made it his practice over the last few years to offer an alternative to the spate of holiday shows at local theaters. Chinglish is a good selection because it has the qualities you look for in your entertainment choices at this time of year. It is funny and entertaining, its characters are fully realized, and, importantly, it has both a brain and a heart. In closing, let me whet your appetite with a prime example of Chinglish: "The slippery are crafty."*
*("Slippery when wet.")
Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Celeste Oliva, Liz Eng, Chen Tang, Tiffany Chen, Barlow Adamson)