BWW Review: NO FOREIGNERS examines culture and identity from within a fantastical Chinese mall
A shopping mall is an ambitious setting for a play, and a Chinese mall perhaps even more so given the cultural significance they have for their communities. NO FOREIGNERS attempts (and does well) to weave between lore, existentialism, comedy, and myth, revealing the struggle many people face when trying to find their identities in an ever-changing world.
The Hong Kong Exile and fu-GEN Theatre production, directed by Milton Lim and presented by The Theatre Centre, offers a multi-faceted approach to examining personal and community identity. Set within a Chinese mall, the story follows a man who's lost connection with his culture and is trying to relearn how to be Chinese to fulfill a spiritual mission, left behind by his late grandfather.
As he explores the many levels of the mall, he encounters a number of characters - a DVD store employee who vows to teach him how to be Chinese, an older man near the koi pond, and an immortal moth caretaker are among the mix. Strong writing and performances make for a diverse, interesting repertoire of personalities.
Co-creators Derek Chan and April Leung do a fantastic job of bringing these characters to life while remaining in the dark for most of the performance, as NO FOREIGNERS is told through life-drawing figurines (miniature design by Natalie Tin Yin Gan with Leung and Chan) set against a row of laptop screens, with the help of two DSLR cameras to broadcast the scenes to the audience on a projector screen. The use of silhouettes only adds to the anonymity of the characters and allows for some really beautiful visuals.
The use of screens (projection and sound design by Lim and Remy Siu; media apparatus design by Siu) for backdrops and scene settings was done creatively, beautifully, and at times to great comedic effect. The use of sound also allowed for some interesting moments, including a high-stakes scene that literally shook the intimate theatre space. There were moments where the volume levels didn't seem properly matched, though, and the actors' voices were partially drowned out by ambience and music.
Despite this, both cast members deserve recognition for successfully conveying a range of personalities and stories just through their voices. As the story's lead, Chan uses his voice to show the changes in his character - starting with a nasally pitch and ending with a grounded, deep tone. When he finally gets to step into the spotlight - literally - for a karaoke performance, Chan perfectly balances sincerety and comedy to deliver a showstopping number.
Leung goes above and beyond to bring all of the stories' female characters to life. In one scene, she's a daydreaming travel agent fantasizing about love, and in the next she's Sodapop Mah, the bubbly DVD store employee who decides to teach the protagonist how to be Chinese. She exudes power as the moth caretaker, bookends the mall narrative as the sharp-witted and nonchalant bag store owner, and her scene with Chan as the Mah parents, the owners of an electronics store, is one of the play's high points.
The choices made in staging NO FOREIGNERS all speak to the namelessness of the characters and in a way, make it possible for audience members of all backgrounds to connect with the story. At its core, this is a journey of self-discovery and cultural identity, although its roots in Chinese culture are essential to the plot points and character's development. Not being of a Chinese background, my own ability to understand is limited, but there are lessons and connections sprinkled throughout that are left open to interpretation. NO FOREIGNERS is an incredibly creative take on a hero's quest and given that it possesses a moving and funny script (text by David Yee) and a dynamic duo of a cast, it just might set a new bar for presenting multimedia works on stage.
NO FOREIGNERS runs through September 29 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit http://theatrecentre.org/?p=13463
Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Exile, fu-GEN Theatre and The Theatre Centre