Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: David Henry Hwang’s shrewd and funny comedy “Chinglish” probes cultural misperceptions—West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep

Michelle Krusiec (left) and Alex Moggridge (right) star in Berkeley Rep’s production of “Chinglish,” a new comedy from David Henry Hwang which heads for Hong Kong after having its West Coast premiere here. Photo courtesy of

“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

Production Team:

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 . 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.

September 1, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Dael Orlandersmith’s “Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men”—a powerful one woman show that probes the lingering wounds of abuse— at Berkeley Rep, through June 24, 2012

Pulitzer Prize-finalist Dael Orlandersmith is back at Berkeley Rep with the world premiere of “Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men.” Photo courtesy of

From the moment the formidable Dael Orlandersmith steps onto the barren floor of the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, her intensity is hypnotic.  In her new solo work Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, which had its world premiere last Wednesday evening, Orlandersmith transforms herself into five young men of varying ages and races to take us on a dark journey that probes the lasting trauma of childhood abuse.  Wearing simple loose-fitting black clothing and her signature braids loose throughout the entire 100 minute performance, Orlandersmith shifts her weight, changes her accent and seems effortlessly, from someplace within, to call forth five young men of varying races, origins and ages who tell their stories.  Having lived through horrific abuse—recounted in graphic detail—the common enemy these young men now face is the power of history and painful personal experience.   Adulthood, especially for children from homes with recurrent abuse and violence, presents varying levels of growth and regression.  Orlandersmith takes us a journey riddled with turbulent emotional shifts as acts of self-sabotage and unintentional abuse undo significant gains.  As these young men question the choices they’ve made and the patterns they’ve enacted, we can’t help but applaud the strength it took for Orlandersmith to give voice to their demons and the sliver of hope residing in the dark corners of their awakening self-awareness.

Orlandersmith made an indelible impression on local audiences in 2004 with Berkeley Rep’s production of Yellowman.  That play, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, explored the complex dimensions interracial prejudice through the story of a young black couple.  It was commissioned and originally produced by McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey and was the first play Orlandersmith wrote for other actors.  Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men has the potential to be every bit as biting as Yellowman but it needs to be tightened and honed, much of which will happen during its road-test at Berkeley Rep.  Orlandersmith pours every once of her soul into these young men, giving a raw, haunting and audacious performance.    

Special Events:

Free 30-minute docent presentations about the show take place at 7:00 PM on the following Tuesday and Thursday evenings: June 5, June 7, June 12, June 14, June 19, and June 21, 2012.  Docent talks are also held in three local communities: at the Orinda Library on Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 7:00 PM, at the Lafayette Library on Wednesday, June 6, 2012 at 7:00 PM , and at the Moraga Library on Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 2:00 PM.

Post-play discussions moderated by theatre professionals follow the 8:00 PM shows on Friday, June 8, 2012 and Tuesday, June 12, 2012.

Free tastings: Join Berkeley Rep for complimentary pre-performance tastings! Sample wine and other delights.  New tasting events are being added all the time, so be sure to check back often!

  • Friday, June 8, 2012: Urbano Cellars / 7pm
  • Saturday, June 9, 2012 Dr. Kracker / 7pm
  • Friday, June 15, 2012: Semifreddi’s / 7pm

Creative Team:  written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith; directed by Chay Yew; designed by Daniel Ostling (sets), Anita Yavich (costumes), Ben Stanton (lights), and Mikhail Fiksel (sound)

Details:  Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men runs through Sunday, June 24, 2012. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Thrust Stage) is located at 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets start at $29.  Additional savings are available for groups, seniors, students, and anyone under 30 years of age – meaning discounted seats can be obtained for as little as $14.50. For tickets and info: or phone 510.647.2949

June 4, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Rita Moreno shows us who she is at 79 and she’s a force to be reckoned with in the world premiere of “Life Without Make-up,” at Berkeley Rep through October 30, 2011

Legendary performer Rita Moreno returns to Berkeley Rep for the world premiere of "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," written by Artistic Director Tony Taccone, through October 30, 2011. Photographer: Michael LaMonica

At 79, Rita Moreno, the legendary star of stage and screen, has led quite a life and most of it has been an uphill battle.  Her autobiographical new play Rita Moreno: Life Without Make-up, which opens Berkeley Rep’s new season, explores what that climb to the top has entailed.  Moreno is just one of an elite handful of persons who have won an Oscar (supporting actress for “West Side Story”), Emmy (“The Rockford Files”), Grammy (soundtrack for “The Electric Company”), and Tony (“The Ritz”).  And she is the only Latino on that list which also includes Barbra Streisand and Audrey Hepburn.  In her new show, which she co-created with Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director Tony Taccone, the Puerto-Rican born star tells the story of her struggle against poverty, racism, and the sexual politics of show business in Hollywood’s Golden Age.  She also offers a wealth of inside dirt about the leading men and women she interacted with―all against a stunning multimedia montage of memorable moments from her extraordinary life.  She is accompanied by two expert dancers, Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, who join her to perform choreography by Lee Martino.  Seeing her in person is worth the price of admission–watching her on stage, dancing and gamming it up, you wonder why she at 79 looks better than most of us do at 50.   

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to walk in the footsteps of such a powerhouse, you’ll come away satisfied.  Moreno starts her story at age 5 as Rosita Dolores Alverio (her given name) in her native Puerto Rico with her willful mother, who is escaping poverty and an abusive marriage by hopping a boat to New York City.  Tragically, her infant brother is left behind.  Once in New York, she and her mother assimilate in poor neighborhoods packed with immigrants, barely scraping by.   When young Moreno’s talent is discovered, it is nurtured, first and foremost by her mother who sees her young daughter as the ticket out of the barrios. When she starts Spanish dancing lessons with Rita Hayworth’s uncle, Paco Cansino, a knowledgeable instructor, Rita realizes that performing is her destiny.  Through a magic combination of luck and chutzpah, she is soon off and running and begins auditioning and performing.  She slowly cobbles together an identity around entertaining and by the time she is a teenager, she is acting on Broadway.  

Her lucky break comes a few years later when she is discovered by a Hollywood casting agent while performing at a dance recital and is whisked off to Hollywood with a coveted MGM contract.  She gushes as she recalls that the first person she met on the MGM lot was Clark Gable and then, shortly thereafter, Elizabeth Taylor whom Moreno idolized.  There’s a huge “but wait” though―the film industry didn’t really know what to do with talented non-white performers in the 1940’s and Moreno was relegated to playing stereotypical Latina spitfires and Indian maidens in a spate of B-movies.  One of the things Life Without Make-up does most effectively is paint a picture of what it was like to work in a Hollywood that was both racist and sexist and the constant pressures Moreno faced to fit the mold of the “ethnic utility player.”  Moreno speaks directly to the audience with candor and humor about some very painful experiences.  She constantly struggled to maintain a healthy sense of self as a woman and as a Latina while straightening her hair and trying to lighten her complexion to look like someone she wasn’t.  One of her sadist stories recounts being mauled by movie industry bigwigs at a fancy party who claimed that she was coming on to them and then being rescued by humble Latino gardeners who respected women.  Moreno had true grit though and somehow, she persevered. 

Legendary actress Rita Moreno performs with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia during dress rehearsal for the world premiere of "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of

 A rare opportunity came when she was chosen to tango with Gene Kelly in the now classic Singin’ in the Rain (1952).  Her first major break though came when she landed the role of Tuptim, the rebellious concubine, in The King and I (1956) over the Asian actress France Nguyen.  In recounting this story, Moreno confesses deep regret over something that occurred but never gets into specifics. You get the idea that she may have actively campaigned for the role and there is more that she is not telling.  If you’re interested in personal confessionals, that’s where Life Without Make-up falls short.  If you listen carefully throughout, you’ll find Moreno’s collection of stories entertaining and poignant, and there’s also a good mix of small observations and big picture questions, but Moreno’s clever wit and sharp insights are mainly turned on those around her and on experiences that were thrust upon her.  This is an expose of the entertainment industry and doesn’t really delve into Moreno’s regrets about her own actions.   This seems intentional as Tony Taccone, Life Without Make-up’s writer, knows the power of brutal honesty, and owning one’s dark side.  It was Taccone who collaborated with actress Carrie Fisher (of Starwars’ fame) to create her 2009 brut tour-de-force “Wishful Drinking.” 

Near the end of the first act, Moreno talks about her famous love affair with Marlon Brando, whom she met on the MGM lot.  She recounts quite humorously how she was totally smitten with Brando but how he was completely smitten with himself and how she started “seeing” Elvis to make him jealous.  She skips her sleeping pill-swallowing suicide attempt.  In another sequence, she talks about being thrust in bed with Jack Nicholson to do numerous love-making takes for the film Carnal Knowledge (1971) and how it was a source of conflict in her marriage to Leonard Gordon.  There’s a lot she is not telling but that’s Hollywood!

All of her sacrifice and hard work ultimately paid off with 1961’s film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical West Side Story.  As the fiery Anita, who sings and dances the show-stopping “America,” Moreno lit up the screen and earned that year’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.  As she tells her stories, Moreno powerfully and colorfully recants the “characters” in her life–using a number of hilarious accents to complete the portraits.  She outdoes herself as she tells about working with Natasha Lytess, Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach, who taught her the nuances of gesture, movement, elocution and getting in touch with her vagina.  And then there’s the music and dance.  Highlights include her tapping “Broadway Rhythm” from Singing in the Rain (1952) and performing “The Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story with Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo to lee Martino’s choreography.  Through it all Moreno emerges as a powerhouse, lady-like but razor-sharp and never forgetting her humble past.  This is a two-hour performance to be savored.

And if this review has you aching to see more of Moreno, if you have satellite or cable tv, you can always catch her on re-runs of Law and Order: Criminal Intent as the fabulously crazy dying mother of Detective Goren.  And she plays Fran Drescher’s mom on TV Land’s new sitcom Happily Divorced which aired in June 2011.  With a one-woman show and a new TV role, 79 never looked so good.

Production Team:

Written by Tony Taccone

Developed by Rita Moreno and Tony Taccone

Staged and directed by David Galligan

Choreography by Lee Martino

Set design by Anna Louizos

Costumes by Annie Smart

Video and lights by Alexander V. Nichols

Sound by Phil Allen


Rita Moreno

Ray Garcia

Salvatore Vassallo

Featuring a four-piece band with Cesar Cancino (music director), Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Alex Murzyn (reeds), and David Rokeach (percussion)

Details: Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup runs through October 30, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances.  Pre-show docent talks: Tuesdays 9/27, 10/4, 10/11, 10/18 & 10/25 and Thursdays 9/22, 9/29, 10/6 & 10/20 @ 7:00 PM.  Post-play discussions: Thursday 9/22, Tuesday 9/27, and Friday 10/7 @ 8:00 PM

Tickets: $73 to $34.  Box office:  (510) 647-2949 or  

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.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment