LANGUAGE AND CUSTOM ARE SOURCES OF HILARITY IN CHINGLISH
At a time when Americans may feel a little uneasy about the rising power of China, Berkeley Repertory Theatre offers us a chance to step back and see a more human side of Chinese-American relations with its cleverly staged, sophisticated and uproarious Chinglish. Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang’s play is a romp through the new worlds of doing business in China, and what transpires when languages collide and traditions upend. International business in China may be strange to the uninitiated but it becomes comfortably accessible – indeed, timeless – in this play. Shenanigans result when simple communication gets lost in translation; what doesn’t get lost here, thanks to Leigh Silverman’s quick-paced direction, a superb ensemble, and Hwang’s deft writing, is one iota of humor.
Alex Moggridge is warmly appealing and very sympathetic as the hapless American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh of Ohio, a cultural neophyte arriving in China to seal a deal involving his Cleveland sign company. Brian Nishii, who plays his trusty consultant Peter, neatly juggles sincerity with understated hilarity. A series of meetings with the Chinese business people is all the more delightful for their deadpan stony faces as they alternate between desperate politeness and consternation at the linguistic gaffes committed by Cavanaugh.
Next we meet the imposing Communist Minister Cai, (a daunting Larry Lei Zhang) and the svelte, sexy deputy minister Xi Yan (the captivating Michelle Krusiec), whose flinty propriety melts into naughtiness when she engages Daniel in some unscheduled rounds of intense negotiation.
Nothing is what it seems in the world of Chinglish; as the action ricochets along, masks are peeled off and the revelations that emerge go from surprising to very funny to touching, especially when Daniel’s heart gets the better of him. Hwang skillfully dovetails the action in both English and Chinese (approximately 25% of the dialogue is in Mandarin); while the characters may not comprehend each other, the audience easily follows the perfectly balanced mayhem.
The staging beautifully echoes the play’s snappy action and cascade of revelations. Scenic designer David Korins’ sets deftly capture austere but well-appointed conference rooms and luxurious hotel suites; guided by invisible tracks, pieces of scenery and furniture glide into place in a breathtaking ballet which mirrors the rollercoaster storyline. Anita Yavich’s costume designs aptly embody a crisp business style with sexy undertones that’s just right for this story.
There’s a happy – maybe even a tidy – ending to this study in cultural juxtapositions; or, at least, a cautionary lesson to take home: the importance of communication at all levels of our life. This is not a perfect play as some of the mostly short scenes are superfluous, but it is truly funny. It must be said that the audience was positively gleeful. We don’t need it, but the printed program helpfully explains some of the mistranslations that Chinglish is prone to, but it also gives insight as to the contextual humor which is so satisfying; some “Chinglish Decoded”: The American message “Keep off the grass” is communicated as “I like your smile but unlike you put your shoes on my face”; and “Handicapped Restroom” is in place of “Deformed Man’s Toilet.”
One of the funniest parts of the play involve supertitles which float above the actors, cunningly bagging the comedic misunderstandings of even the smallest of philological errors. The laughter caused by Chinglish will also have the audience floating out of the theater.
photos courtesy of kevinberne.com
Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley
scheduled to close on October 21, 2012
for tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit http://www.berkeleyrep.org