Sunday, January 26, 2014

“Chinglish” – thought provoking comedy at Portland Center Stage

Photo credit: Patrick Weishampel
Making skillful use of projected titles and brilliant acting by an exceptional cast, Portland Center Stage’s production of “Chinglish” effectively used comedy to heighten and expose cultural differences on opening night (January 17th) at the Gerdling Theater. “Chinglish,” written by David Henry Hwang, is a thoughtful comedy about Americans and Chinese, and while the audience on Friday evening laughed heartily at the mangled style of English (aka Chinglish), it also realized that the Americans know basically nothing about Chinese languages and culture, and that this culture can present a strong critique of the American way of doing things. So, as the story about an American who attempted to do business in China unfolded, the humor melted away as serious situations developed over cultural misunderstandings, and the audience was left to reflect on it all.

The play began with the young American businessman who knows that a lot of English signage in China has been done so badly that the phrases are humorous, misleading, and/or meaningless. Take for example, signage in the theater that read the “deformed man’s toilet,” which meant the “handicapped restroom.” The businessman then tries to secure a contract with a government minister who overseas several cultural institutions that are popular with foreign visitors. He quickly discovered one of the central points in the play, “Always bring your own translator.”

As the play progresses, the businessman dumps his translator/consultant and falls in love with a helpful government official who happens to be married to a judge. That leads to complications and revelations on all sides in this intriguing tale. The audience learns a thing or two about the Chinese perspective on love, marriage, and family, and it’s not the “romance above all else” concept, which is part and parcel of the American dream.

Peter O’Connor leads a stellar cast as the clueless but quick to learn American businessman. Tina Chilip is thoroughly enticing as the government official who becomes the businessman’s paramour. She is the one who provides the most opportunity to understand the Chinese mindset. As the translator and nascent middleman, Jeff Locker was terrific and his brief foray into Chinese opera, singing a duet in falsetto with Jian Xin (playing the government minister), was a hoot. Playing two roles each, Lily Tung Crystal, Rachel Lu, and Yuekun Wu were spot on and totally convincing. Kudos should be given to May Adrales for directing a stellar production.

The unique blend of comedy and serious cultural observations in “Chinglish” reminds me of some of George Bernard Shaw’s work. It will be interesting to see how “Chinglish” does down the road. Hwang has received much acclaim as a dramatist for his plays, including the Tony-award-winning “M. Butterfly,” “Golden Child,” Yellow Face,” “FOB,” and “The Dance and the Railroad.” He is also considered one of America’s best librettists, having collaborated with Bright Sheng, Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, Unsuk Chin, and Howard Shore. The San Francisco Opera company has recently announced that it has commissioned Bright Sheng to compose "Dream of the Red Chamber" for a fall 2016 premiere with an English-language libretto by Hwang.

In the meantime, I highly recommend that you experience the Portland Center Stage production of “Chinglish,” which runs through February 9th.

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