Saturday, September 22, 2012

Funny Theater, Not Textbook - David Henry Hwang's Chinglish at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

David Henry Hwang's Chinglish at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT) is generating great buzz and has attracted many new audience from Asian American community.

Last Friday, I attended the performance at BRT with anticipation and a little trepidation, particularly after viewing an introduction trailer on BRT's website (below).  I was resolved to approach it as a play, other than a cultural reference to the home country I left twenty years before.

Chinglish! at Berkeley Rep from Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Vimeo.

BRT informed us on its website that David Henry Hwang "is back with a canny comedy of cross-cultural errors. In Chinglish, an American businessman heads to Asia to score a lucrative contract for his family's firm—but the deal isn't the only thing getting lost in translation when he collides with a Communist minister, a bumbling consultant and a suspiciously sexy bureaucrat. Two-time Obie-winner Leigh Silverman returns to Berkeley Rep to stage the twists in a terrific play she took to Broadway. Love is on the line, and laughter fills the ledger in Chinglish."

After the two-hour long performance, both my expectations were met.  There were some observations I'd like to share.

First, it was a wonderful night at theater, particularly the crisp and funny first act.  The second act was somewhat bogged down by turgid romanticism, lethargic pace and sentimentality.  The marvelous scenery and crisp direction was the highlight of the night.  All the lithe actors all gave their considerably best.  That said, it needed a bold editor and it would have been a much better play if the second half had been at least halved. 

Second, people like me, a native Chinese speaker having broad life experiences in both China and America, were not the targeted audience.  I was actually bogged down by my Chinese knowledge to enjoy the play as well as people who didn't speak Chinese.  For example, when the protagonist tried to learn some Chinese phrases, his rapid-fire mispronunciations were simply meaningless gibberish to me, yet the projected English translation made them amazingly funny and elicited much laughter, which signified to me that those "funny" moments were not genuine but manufactured.

Third, it could be called a farce, a comedy, a romantic drama, a sitcom, etc., but not a cultural reference.  It did not successfully open the window to China.  Rather, it opened the shutter, and revealed a trompe-l'œil, albeit a marvelously funny one.

Fourth, characterization versus caricaturization.  I wholeheartedly agreed that dealing with Chinese people, particularly those opaque, pompous and often corrupt petty officials was an ordeal, tortuous and painful.  However, such difficulties were not as presented by the play.  The play did a good job in creating a sense of helplessness, just not true, if that was important to you.  This, together with the stilted Chinese dialogue, anachronistic clothes and accessories, misrepresentation of political and judicial working order, the styles of the interaction amongst Chinese people themselves confined to different hierarchical orders, demonstrated that the playwright didn't have a firm grasp of current Chinese culture.  I learned that this play would go to Hong Kong, though not mainland China.  I had to wonder if audience in mainland China would feel insulted or not.  I tried not to be bothered by this.  However, watching the play did give me a sense of what it must be like watching The Beverly Hillbillies in West Virginia.

Finally, I would recommend this play, though hardly a must see, with a caveat - see it as an artistic creation, not as reality show.

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