BWW Reviews: Black Lab Theatre's CHINGLISH is the Must-See Event of the Season!

By: May. 10, 2013
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Black Lab Theatre is closing their exciting 2012-2013 season with a provocative and hilarious Regional Premiere production of David Henry Hwang's 2011 play CHINGLISH. The fresh and poignant comedy is a timely exploration of the business and economic relationship between China and the United States. As this plot is so richly layered and absorbing, I'm reluctant to say much about it for fear of ruining the miraculous experience of watching the story unfold. At the opening of the show, Daniel Cavanaugh, owner of Ohio Signage, is making a presentation for the Commerce League of Ohio about doing business in China. The plot quickly flashes back three years and recounts his first trip to China as he hopes to score a contract to make the translated signs for a new Cultural Arts Center in Guiyang, China. Within a few scenes, the audience is mesmerized by the level of duplicitous intrigue and captured in the surreptitious game of trying to determine what team all the characters are playing for.

Direction by Troy Scheid is simply astounding. I can only imagine the challenges she faced in preparing to direct a play that has so much dialogue in a foreign language. Then to complicate matters, that language is the tonal and complex Mandarin and not one of the Latinate languages that shares characteristics of her native English. However, her final product is a realistic, believable comedy about the intersection of Chinese and American cultures that leaves audiences rolling in the aisles and touches our hearts, minds, and souls with the romantic subplot and the intellectually stimulating discourses on international business trade and humanity.

Mike Yager's portrayal of Daniel Cavanaugh is sublimely relatable. As an American whose cultural knowledge of China is limited to viewing Chinese art at museums, seeing a few Chinese films, and eating at American Chinese restaurants, I connected with his outsider status and confusion when immersed without warning into the culture of the country and the city of Guiyang. His struggles with Chinese culture mirror the ones that the non-Mandarin speaking audience members would face in the same situation, which makes for excellent and raucous comedic moments. Moreover, Mike Yager's Daniel is personable, and the audience roots for him from beginning to end. Mike Yager so convincingly plays Daniel with such honesty and good intentions that his successes uplift us and his setbacks break our hearts.

Vice Minister Xi Yan is the role of a lifetime for an actress that is Chinese or Chinese-American and fluent in Mandarin. Most importantly, Vivian Chiu's inspired and stirring portrayal of the role is consummate perfection. Vivian Chiu's Xi Yan is passionate, gorgeous, intelligent, and powerful. Her struggles are mostly insular, trying to navigate the dictates of her profound respect for her culture while exploring the dynamics of her own personal and professional relationship with Daniel Cavanaugh. Vivian Chiu creates a spellbinding woman that is so subtly and luxuriously multifaceted with touching realism and stunning emotionality that audiences will find themselves completely swept away by her performance.

As Peter Timms, John Dunn leaves the audience superbly awestruck. I'm willing to wager that many in Houston who have loved seeing John Dunn tread the boards around town have no idea how brilliantly capable he is in emoting in and speaking Mandarin. A great majority of his spoken dialogue is in Mandarin, and he performs with such resounding fluency that the audience would never believe that he didn't study the language and use it on a daily basis for 19 years, like his character has. Furthermore, John Dunn expertly uses a British accent when speaking in English as well. John Dunn is a true chameleon on stage and a champion at his craft. Lastly, John Dunn skillfully ensures that his Peter Timms will evoke a myriad of different emotions from the audience as the play progresses.

Xin Jian is purposefully and enjoyably stately as Minister Cai Guoliang. Xin Jian imbues Cai Guoliang with the air of a shrewd business man that runs his affairs with militaristic precision. When he sings an aria from a Chinese opera with John Dunn's Peter Timms he earns healthy and hearty peals of laughter and warms our hearts.

Janice Pai Martindale does double duty as Miss Qian, an amiable but bumbling Chinese national who translates what Daniel Cavanaugh says for Minister Cai Guoliang despite her lack of prowess in the English language, and the staunchly professional Prosecutor Li. Janice Pai Martindale brings these two diametrically opposed characters to captivating life, making audiences roll with laughter in both of her scenes.

Playing both the bratty and flamboyant nephew of Cai Guoliang, Bing, and the astute and severe Judge Geming, William Wu is both alluring and amusing. His characters are also vastly different but entirely entertaining.

Andrea Huang does fantastic work as Zhao, a translator with limitEd English language ability. Her personality for Zhao is bubbly and infectious. She also does great work with her silent roles, such as the hotel employee.

Jodi Bobrovsky's Scenic Design is dazzlingly impressive. She uses flats that can easily spin and be manipulated in other ways to seamlessly and quickly change the scene. While minimalistic in approach, the Set Design is phenomenally artistic and crafty, becoming a key character in this production. Lastly, whoever masterminded the choreography of the set changes deserves immense kudos as well.

Macy Lyne's Costume Design is fantastic. The costumes are all well tailored and look great on each member of the cast. The modern cuts on the business attire are classy, professional, and look expensive. Nothing in the design appears inappropriate or out of place.

Eric March's Lighting Design perfectly focuses our eyes on the action and doesn't get in the way of the production. It is clean, vibrant, and simplistically muted which allows Henry David Hwang's masterful writing to be the center of attention for the entire performance.

Yesminne Zepeda's Sound Design incorporates what seems to be pop music from China or Chinese translations of American pop music in-between scenes, keeping the audiences mind in the right frame as the set is manipulated and prepared for the next scene.

Ryan McGettigan's Projection Design is fantastic. The pre-show Chinglish signage is hilarious and a great warm-up for the play. Likewise, he has chosen fantastic photos to accompany the opening dialogue. Once the play gets started, his supertitles are well placed and unobtrusive. They are comfortably positioned above center stage and easy for the audience to reference without missing any moment of the show.

Black Lab Theatre, which has done nothing but phenomenal work this season, definitely saved the best for last. In all sincerity, this production is easily the not-to-be-missed event of the season. Black Lab Theatre's CHINGLISH is thrilling, exciting, poignant, fresh, amazing, hilarious, relevant, touching, empowering, thoughtful, and thought provoking. It is the best written and best acted play to be presented in Houston since I started writing for BroadwayWorld almost a year ago, and I am certain that it will be remembered as one of the best plays ever produced in our great city. If you have not already purchased your tickets to see CHINGLISH, you need to get them now. You'll forever regret missing this stellar production.

Black Lab Theatre's production of David Henry Hwang's CHINGLISH runs through May 26, 2013 at Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore Boulevard, Houston. For more information and tickets, please visit or You can also call (713) 496 - 9901.

All photos courtesy of Black Lab Theatre.

L to R: Mike Yager (Daniel Cavanaugh) & John Dunn (Peter Timms).

Vivian Chiu (Xi Yan) & Mike Yager (Daniel Cavanaugh).

L to R: John Dunn (Peter Timms), Mike Yager (Daniel Cavanaugh), Janice Pai Martindale (Miss Qian), Xin Jian (Cai Guoliang) & Vivian Chiu (Xi Yan).

Xin Jian (Cai Guoliang) & Vivian Chiu (Xi Yan).

L to R: Mike Yager (Daniel Cavanaugh), Janice Pai Martindale (Miss Qian), John Dunn (Peter Timms) & Xin Jian (Cai Guoliang).

L to R: Mike Yager (Daniel Cavanaugh), Janice Pai Martindale (Miss Qian), John Dunn (Peter Timms) & Xin Jian (Cai Guoliang).

Vivian Chiu (Xi Yan) & Mike Yager (Daniel Cavanaugh).

Vivian Chiu (Xi Yan).


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