BWW Reviews: Hwang's Hilarious CHINGLISH Gets Translated for SCR
In a trend I am highly excited about, South Coast Repertory, that Tony Award-winning regional theater smack-dab in the middle of Orange County, California, seems to be experiencing a sort of renaissance of diverse voices this year. Okay, granted, we're only in the second month of 2013, but still... it's worth noticing.
Following up last month's superb dark comedy with the (almost) unprintable name (reviewed here) comes yet another play that was also just recently a hit on Broadway: Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang's immensely funny CHINGLISH, now playing on SCR's Segerstrom Stage through February 24. A co-production with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre -- and featuring almost the exact same cast from that Fall 2012 West Coast Premiere -- this witty, thoroughly engaging play examines the misunderstandings between two very diverse cultures that go well beyond a mere language barrier. Emerging from all the boisterous laughter is a play that truly illustrates the idea that for different cultures to really understand each other, they have to also really get each other, too.
Full of hilarious scenes and amusing back-and-forth exchanges between richly-depicted characters that speak in both English and Mandarin (thankfully, helpful -- and often humorous -- supertitles are projected above the actors), CHINGLISH gets its title from the common practice of Chinese mistranslations. In essence, Chinglish words are the mangled -- albeit well-intentioned -- Chinese "versions" of English words and phrases. For the benefit of English speakers in China, many of the country's signage often contain translations for things as simple as "crosswalk" or "have a nice day." Unfortunately, though, nuances in each others' culture and language usage make it very difficult for the Chinese to create mere literal translations of everything.
By not taking into account the plethora of situational connotations, modern slang, and specific idioms that may be involved in any given phrase, the results of these translations form unintentionally funny signs like "Tender Fragrant Grass, How Hardhearted to Trample Them" -- which, really, should just simply say "Keep Off The Grass." Some signs are even shockingly offensive: a directional sign that says "Deformed Man's Toilet" should really just say "Handicapped Restroom." For tourists, the signs offer a quick chuckle; for the Chinese, the signs are a source of shame and embarrassment.
It is this specific cultural phenomenon that incites an idea in American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge). In hopes of saving his struggling, family-owned signage business in Cleveland, Ohio, he travels to the up-and-coming province of Guiyang, China in order to convince the city's political leaders to grant him an exclusive contract to produce the signage -- proper ones with correct English translations -- for their proposed sports stadium. With China being such a global superpower with plenty more pocket change than most companies in America, the idea seems to be an inspired, financially sound one.
But, as most situations that get dramatized in a play tend to become, things aren't necessarily easier said than done -- especially when you're trying to say it in a foreign language. "When doing business in China," explains Daniel during the play's opening lecture to an unknown group of foreign visitors, "always bring your own translator!"
But negotiations (or something like it) seem to have hit a snag, but, as Daniel's trusted expert in all things China, Peter explains that, "business in China is built on relationships... Guanxi." According to Peter, because of a non-existent legal system, contracts -- even signed ones -- have little to no validity here; but rather, it is the relationship that is forged between client and customer that really solidifies the deal. "You have to take the time and trouble to build an actual relationship," Peter adds.We flash back four years earlier. It turns out -- as it does with the garbled gibberish in translated Chinese signage -- even having a reliable go-between to translate English to Chinese and vice versa isn't all that's required to do business in China. With the help of his consultant friend Peter Timms (Brian Nishii), a British émigré that has been living in Guiyang for almost two decades, Daniel secures a meeting with Cai Guoliang (Raymond Ma), the city's Minister of Culture, and Vice Minister Xi Yan (the intriguing Michelle Krusiec) to sell them on the idea of giving his little Ohio signage company that lucrative business.
For Daniel, already desperate to secure this foreign business to ensure the continued existence of his own business back home, the exact art of Guanxi means staying in China for an extra eight weeks. Oh boy. A lot can happen in eight weeks -- including plenty of misunderstandings, a break of trust, and even an unexpected liaison Daniel didn't see coming. But, of course, the audience can see it coming many kilometers away as we chuckle at the hilarity of it all.
Entertaining and funny in the way smart plays must always strive to be, CHINGLISH does take care to point out characteristics and idiosyncrasies between two varying cultures with pointed humor, though without having to resort to showcasing ugly stereotypes. And, as expected, much of the humor comes in the very same mangled translations that are spoken and seen (via supertitles) by the play's cast of characters. Laughter is also derived from the revelation of the subtle nuances that separate the cultural divide -- what each nationality deems acceptable, taboo, verboten, honorable, trivial, shocking, normal, laughable, or even sexy.
Though language may need further tweaks when it comes to perfect translations from either side, human behavior seems to possess a language of its own that both cultures can truly understand, even as miscommunication continually reveals itself to be a two-way street. Luckily, for the audience, we get the reality of both sides through the magic of real-time translations (by Candace Chong) that are magically projected onto the walls of each scene. These supertitles are such a necessary presence in this play that they almost feel like omnipotent ghost figures that know all and explain all... just for our amusement. For me, I couldn't wait for them to appear -- because each occurrence feels like a welcome punchline that has its own wonderful comic timing that's about to be lobbed our way. In a roundabout way, the supertitles serve as another character in the play.
Under the assured direction of Leigh Silverman -- who also directed the lauded 2011 Broadway production -- SCR's production zips along with vigorous purpose, all while balancing its dramatic moments, its sometimes wicked humor and, dare I say, its bits of geopolitical lessons into one thought-provoking examination of human miscommunication.
The story is also enhanced by one of the most incredibly manipulated sets I've seen in quite some time. Conceived by Scenic Designer David Korins, CHINGLISH employs a clever jigsaw puzzle of set pieces that somehow gets pushed and parked into place with the precision of a Chinese-choreographed Olympic Opening Ceremony (I implore you to seek out an incredible behind-the-scenes video of how the backstage crew puts the sets in place for each scene of this Berkeley/SCR co-production -- it's truly a marvel of stage craft). The sets and their transitions are so well-timed and expertly executed that there are even moments when characters are entering the set mid-change into another set... and then into another set!
And, of course, great spoken words are only as effective as the cast that delivers them, and fortunately, CHINGLISH has an ensemble that's worth raving about. As the harried Midwestern white guy trying to make good in a foreign land that seems to find him to be quite laughable, Moggridge is a pleasant every-man with believable charm and an innate nice-ness that pours out of him. In fact that pleasant demeanor came out during the matinee performance I caught, when Moggridge was actually forced to ad-lib a bit when a, um dazed-and-confused audience member arrived late, arguing with her companion about the location of her seats, and not paying attention or even caring that Moggridge was already on-stage giving a very important opening monologue out to the audience as if we were the audience members of this "seminar" his character is conducting. (He didn't break character when he finally spoke to her; the moment actually broke the ice and the audience laughed with him).
The rest of the cast, which also includes Vivian Chiu, Celeste Den and Austin Ku are all great as well. As Peter, Nishii plays both the character's snobbish and scheming sides quite well, while Ma, plays Minister Cai with both an adorable nature and an old man's gruffness. As Vice Minister Xi Yan, Krusiec is a marvel, able to switch masterfully from stern battle ax and lustful maneater to a vulnerable gal all in one scene. But I must give a special shout-out to Den who, early in the first act steals the show as Daniel's first in a series of hired translators, Miss Qian. Whether speaking in Mandarin or humorously honest English, her mixed bag of facial expressions speak volumes in the universal language of laughter. Give this girl a sitcom role, stat!
As talk of China's global financial dominance in news programs increase with each passing day, CHINGLISH is more timely than ever. Thankfully, Hwang's take on business relations between divergent cultures is lined with humor and cautious optimism.
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Performances of CHINGLISH continue at South Coast Repertory through February 24, then travels overseas for performances at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.