Chicago Theater Review: CHIMERICA (TimeLine)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: CHIMERICA (TimeLine)

by Lawrence Bommer on May 15, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Speculation is just as tricky on the stage as on the stock market. Winner of the 2014 Laurence Olivier Award, Chimerica (its title suggesting a distinction without a difference between America and China) is British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s wildly imaginative depiction of one reporter’s search for a human caught in history: In June 1989 in Tiananmen Square a lone “Tank Man,” holding two bags of groceries, confronted a tank that, happily, swerved to avoid crushing him. Even as the act of defiance symbolized freedom fighters everywhere, the identity of this instant icon remains fascinatingly unknown. Is he still alive? Was he punished? Was the tank operator disciplined for not killing him before the world’s eyes? Tautly staged by Nick Bowling, Timeline Theatre’s Chicago premiere—a kind of “How I Got That Story” reminiscent of Spotlight–gives this thinking thriller more value than it offers an audience.

Chimerica_1C092 Chimerica_1B146

New York photojournalist Joe Schofield (Coburn Goss, driven and unmoored) is a veteran of war zones and unorganized horror. 23 years later, he remains haunted by the sight of this brave or foolhardy individual amid the carnage of an abortive insurrection. (Obvious comparisons are made between Chinese hunger strikes circa 1989 and our “Occupy Wall Street” rebellion.) Joe was one of at least six correspondents who filmed the showdown (which may have involved more than one courageous citizen). In 2012 Joe gives up covering the presidential election (hardly spontaneous protest) to return to a pollution-poisoned Beijing. He will cultivate old contacts and uncover the untold reason for Tank Man’s sudden boldness.

Chimerica_1B031 Chimerica_1A944

But events mock Joe’s mission: In a distracted and attention-deficient era, his acts of witness inevitably get mired in “social” media bursting with pixel-packed imagery that validate everything and nothing (“Kodak ergo sum”). With photoshopped alterations undermining credibility, a snapshot can’t change the world as it used to, like the screaming burn victim or instant execution shots from Vietnam. (But–did they really shorten that wicked war?) Worse, the idea of heroism itself remains in flux and in question: The term “Tank Man,” it seems, can have completely opposite interpretations.

Chimerica_1A853 Chimerica_1A654

Swift scene switches (illustrated with volleys of projections) whip us from New York to China’s capital. The rollercoaster action pits intrepid Joe against his skeptical editor (H.B. Ward), who grows increasingly frustrated as Joe resorts to blackmail and other moral compromises to pursue his leads. Among unreliable sources and strategic go-betweens, Joe sleuths out a mysterious Beijing florist (Norman Lin) and his reticent uncle (Wai Yim). Their revelations seem intriguing, then prove utterly ordinary. In a far from selfless romance Joe falls for Tessa (Eleni Pappageorge,) an English investment manager who confirms China’s capitalism with her own greed.

Chimerica_1C335Over a brisk but taxing 180 minutes, twelve actors play dozens of characters. Their cumulative effect is to break down barriers of perception we’d prefer to preserve: China and America, consumer-driven, deal-making countries not averse to censoring the press, aren’t as polar as we want to believe. Tyranny, a slippery concept, can take subtler forms than a tank facing a man. Whatever truths Joe discovers about a supposedly defining moment, he’s bound to be disappointed.

In a way the audience is too–by a too-processed play. With multiple tonal shifts and an unwieldy cast of uncertain characters, clouded waters just get muddier. Kirkwood throws as many obstacles in our way as in Joe’s, registering multiple perspectives on whether truth ever sets us free. Much here is at best inspired speculation, too clever to convince. This geopolitical puzzle play is powerfully probed and immaculately performed, but at play’s end it remains exasperatingly uncommitted. Losing its way amid its manufactured twists, it’s the textbook definition of the fanatic who redoubles his energy once he’s forgotten his cause. You leave, more likely to think “So what?” than “So true!”

Chimerica_1A598 Chimerica_1A563

photos by Lara Goetsch


TimeLine Theatre
615 W. Wellington Ave.
ends on July 31, 2016
for tickets, call 773.281.8463 or visit Timeline

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Leave a Comment