BWW Reviews: CHINGLISH is Filled with Cross-Cultural Laughter at Portland Center Stage

By: Jan. 28, 2014
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Like most of us, I'm monolingual. I can fake it through some of my high school and college French, and years of living in southern California put a little Spanish in my repertoire, but could I carry on a conversation in any language but English? Nope. I had ambitions once to be a professional translator, but that was a very, very long time ago. So I'm in awe of people who can live and function in multiple languages.

The opening of new countries to American capitalism in recent years has led to cross-cultural confusion. There may be Burger Kings in Russia and KFC in China, but is that really progress? Are we really communicating with people in other countries or just trying to make money off them? Is tourism a good thing? These are all great questions to ask as the world gets smaller, and a dramatist could explore all kinds of intercultural conflict under that topic.

David Henry Hwang's Chinglish is not that play. It's hilarious, a romantic comedy of sorts set in a midsized Chinese city looking to build a cultural center. An American businessman comes over to try to sell the city leaders on hiring his company to build the signage for the center, in hopes of avoiding the mistranslations we've all seen and laughed at. (Hwang has found some particularly egregious and R-rated examples.) He hires a British expatriate as his translator, and the fun begins.

Daniel Cavanaugh (Peter O'Connor) begins the play lecturing us about his experiences in China, and then we leap back three years to his arrival. Peter (Jeff Locker), the translator (he prefers the term "consultant") gives Daniel some tips on dealing with the Chinese, but the first meeting is a confusing linguistic tangle between the Minister (Jian Xin), his attractive female Vice Minister (Tina Chilip), and their translator, who continually apologizes for her poor English. The production handles the Chinese dialogue with surtitles projected above the stage, and it's easy to keep up with what's being said. (The translations and mistranslations make for a lot of humor.) Eventually Daniel and the Vice Minister meet privately and begin having an affair, though both are married to others.

Miscommunication is the theme here. Daniel has hidden some things in his past employment history (which make for some easy jokes in Act Two); the Vice Minister, Xi Yan, has an agenda of her own; Peter hasn't been honest about his resume. The plot developments are fairly predictable, as is the outcome of the affair between Daniel and Xi Yan, but Hwang has come up with a lot of funny lines and surprising cultural conflicts to keep the audience interested.

The cast is up to the challenge. Peter O'Connor makes Daniel a decent guy who seems like a tough businessman but turns out to have a bigger heart than expected. Tina Chilip plays Xi Yan as a strong businesswoman with her own emotional complications. Jeff Locker makes Peter so self-effacing that it becomes humorous, but he never becomes tiresome. Jian Xin is excellent as Cai, the minister. Lily Tung Crystal, Rachel Lu, and Yuekun Wu fill out the ensemble, each playing multiple roles and differentiating them clearly.

Director May Adrales keeps the production moving, and brings out the humor and cleverness in Hwang's script. It's a great-looking production, with sleek sets by Timnothy R. Mackabee (who also handled the projections), and everything plays well. The audience laughed throughout, and the actors played it well. Everyone seems to have taken the cultural issues seriously, and the actors (save Mr. O'Connor, of course) all seem to be fluent in Mandarin, at least to my Western ears. But they can't play what Hwang didn't give them, which is a sense of the importance and urgency of the U.S.-China relationship.

Still, there's nothing wrong with comedy, and Chinglish is a deft one. Go and have a great time. You'll walk away with questions...but you will definitely be entertained.


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