Review: David Henry Hwang’s shrewd and funny comedy “Chinglish” probes cultural misperceptions—West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep
“You’re speaking my language” is something we say when we feel we’re on the same wavelength with someone. Chinlgish is Tony award-winning playwright, David Henry Hwang’s, hilarious comedy, set in China, about what happens when someone’s not speaking your language and you’re not on the same wavelength and your interpreter is making the situation worse. Chinese English, or Chinglish is the result—the ungrammatical, nonsensical pervasive hybrid language that has flourished right along with China’s rapid opening to the world. On Wednesday, Hawng’s Chinlgish had its West Coast premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Obie Theatre, under the capable direction of two-time Obie winner Leigh Silverman. Everything flowed in this sleek comedy, marking what looks to be a winning season opener for the acclaimed theatre.
The play tells the story of an American businessman from Cleveland who goes to China to secure a lucrative contract for his family’s flailing sign-making business and encounters a world of translation issues, both linguistic and cultural. The people he encounters may understand all or nothing of what is said because everything is mangled in translation. Chinglish is topical on all levels. It deftly flushes out the rapidly changing power structure between China and the West and challenges assumptions about strengths and vulnerabilities. It is also a love story that probes new and old world views of marriage and fidelity. As it turns out, a huge cultural divide can occur even in the universal language of love. Chinglish runs at Berkeley rep through October 7, 2012. In 2013, it continues to Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory Theatre, a co-producer of the play, and then goes on to open in Hong Kong.
Chinglish opens with American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh’s PowerPoint presentation on the challenges of doing business in China, most notably Chinglish. Cavanaugh is played fluidly by innocent-looking Alex Moggridge, who was Andrei in Berkeley Rep’s Three Sister’s, 2011. An example of some of the boggling signage commonly found in China is “Take notice of safe, the slippery are very crafty,” which means “slippery slopes ahead.” And from there, the audience is taken on a flashback with Daniel to Guiyang, the small (at 4.3 million) commercial hub and capital city of the Guizhou province, as he navigates some of the slippery slopes he encountered on his first trip to China.
Daniel engages the services of British expat Peter Timms (Brian Nishi) as his business consultant and interpreter. Timms promptly schools him on the essentials of “guanxi” or personal relationships that, once cultivated, will be the key to his success, even more so than securing an actual contract. His advice is both humorous— “criticize yourself, but be sure there’s someone else in the room to contradict you” and salient to the current state of US/China business relations. Peter sets up a meeting with Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang), who communicates through his language-bungling aid (Vivien Chiu), that he is receptive to the idea of granting a lucrative contract to Daniel’s company to manufacture signs for Guiyang’s new arts center.
Of course, nothing is as it seems—everyone has a hidden agenda or a secret. Driving that fact home is Vice Minister, Xi Yan, played by Michelle Krusiac, who delivers the play’s most memorable and nuanced performance. Xi Yan holds the key to Daniel’s success in the deal. She talks in a serious tone but is dressed in body-hugging business suits, mile-high stilettos and has an alluring cool sensuality that bewitches the American. Her seemingly innocent blunder to Daniel, “I sleeping with you,” which should have been “I am sleepy,” sets the stage for a later encounter. But, once alone in a hotel room with the married American, her vulnerability and own conflicted desires are exposed as she is swept into an affair that promises to be more complex than anticipated.
As Daniel falls for Xi Yan and admits to her and that he is considering telling his wife about his feelings for her, Xi Yan makes it clear that, in China, fidelity, marriage and love are viewed differently, even by the new generation who “married for love.” Xi Yan doesn’t even consider leaving her husband, while Daniel holds the more traditionally Western view that romantic relationships are fluid.
David Henry Hwang’s dialogue is humorous and carefully crafted throughout. As Daniel and Xi Yan become more physically intimate, some of their pillow-talk reveals differing but equally valid viewpoints about China’s current status in the world and who wields the power.
Xi Yan says “One day we (China) will be strong.”
Daniel replies “What do you mean. You’re strong now.”
Xi Yan “Now? No, someday.”
Daniel “No, now.”
About a quarter of the play is in Mandarin Chinese but the audience learns what is being said through the clever use of supertitles projected directly onto the set about the characters’ heads, making the experience akin to watching an opera. So, while the characters themselves are not able to understand each other, the audience can and that evokes some empathy for all their situations.
Berkeley Rep is known for its wonderful sets. David Korins has outdone himself with creating the half dozen or so rooms in China where important conversations take place—ranging from an office meeting room, to a bar, a restaurant, a hotel lobby, and hotel room—all gliding seamlessly and interchangeably across the stage on an innovative set of sliders, re-enforcing the play’s energetic pace.
On Wednesday evening, all actors and production factors came together to create that magical sense of flow. Afterwards, the lobby was abuz with discussion. A Cal student from China told me that David Henry Hwang was “you know, like Woody Allen style—pressing on the serious with silly.” Another person, who claimed to speak Mandarin fluently, reported that the supertitles were “90 percent correct” and “really good.”
Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director, Tony Taccone, introduces Chinglish
Written by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Designed by David Korins (sets), Anita Yavich (costumes), Brian MacDevitt
(lighting), Darron L West (sound), and Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan (projections)
Cast: Vivian Chiu, Celeste Den, Michelle Krusiec, Austin Ku, Alex Moggridge,
Brian Nishii, and Larry Lei Zhang
Run-time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Playwright David Henry Hwang’s latest prize, the Steinberg Award: On August 23, 2012, Hwang was awarded a $200,000 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award for 32 years of provocative satires and dramas that have brought Asian and Asian-American characters to Broadway and other stages. The Steinberg award was created by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust in 2008 to honor and encourage artistic excellence. The $200,000 award is given every other year; it went to Tony Kushner (Angels in America) in 2008 and Lynn Nottage (Ruined) in 2010.
Details: Chinglish runs through October 7, 2012 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Street (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances: Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances on weekends and select Thursdays. Tickets: $99 to $14.50. Box office: (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org . Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.
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