Playwright/performer Rachel Lampert said of her 1997 experience staging West Side Story in China “I realized I wanted to tell this story. I started first writing it in book form, and then it seemed…the stage was the best place for it.” Frankly, I disagree. Although The Soup Comes Last is a charming, fascinating tale of cultures clashing and viewpoints expanding, it is still at its core a staged diary. Because of this, the Kitchen Theatre Company’s New York premiere of Soup at 59E59 Theaters falls a little flat with what might, in any other format, be a delightful, gripping experience.
In 1997, Brooklyn-born choreographer Rachel Lampert traveled to China with director Joanne Gordon to put on West Side Story in Chinese, and along the way encountered boundaries of every imaginable sort. The school they are to be teaching at provides them with no theatre, no accompanist, and no opening night date, not to mention interpreters who they find later to be twisting their words (and the translated script). The Chinese students, however, are enthusiastic and curious enough about American musicals (“Are all the Jet girls prostitutes?”) to make up for the overbearing force of the Academy’s founders, husband and wife team Professor’s Tan and Ding.
This once in a lifetime opportunity is relegated to a list-like format, interspersed only occasionally with deep emotion from Lampert’s side. The problem with this being a one-woman show is that the other ten characters Lampert portrays all come off as flimsy caricatures: their Chinese hosts, the eager translator Emma, and especially the overly dramatic British director Joanne Gordon. You get a sense that Lampert is the only person grounded in the reality of the project, and that produces the problem of elevating her to a level of superiority over the others.
The other quandary presented by this format is that it lacks any truly memorable writing. Lampert and Gordon’s six weeks at the Jing-yi Academy of Performing Arts is spelled out with a direction so perfunctory that there is hardly ever a real sense of tension, conflict, joy, or elation. Rather, it is a laundry list of “this happened next” or “then we did this,” completely lacking in the anticipation that would have been found had Lampert not been forced to converse with herself for two hours. The only snippets of poetry come with the proverbs splashed across the stage’s screen, relating more about the moments in the show at times than the words spilling from Lampert’s mouth.
Rachel Lampert, however, is enjoyable enough to watch tearing around the small stage, flinging on different personas with speed and inflecting her voice with enough distinction to contrast between the characters. She does give herself one sincerely touching moment during a phone call from her husband back in New York, fretting that perhaps she was wrong to simply burst into China and try to mold them into the American vision of musical theatre. Aside from this, the closest she comes to veritable sentiment is morphing into a proud Jewish mama as she watches her students run through West Side Story for the first time.
After two hours of relating all she encountered in China, the most memorable part of the show is revealed. A short video postcard is projected onto the stage’s screen, encapsulating the rehearsal process and finally putting an existent face to the names and impersonations we have been imagining. We are reminded that Lampert and Gordon really did stick out like sore thumbs, that the Asian students were as talented as they were earnest, and that Gordon really did try to communicate solely with charades and hand gestures. The mere minutes of film at the show’s conclusion packs more emotion and understanding than ever was possible with a one-woman show, and leads me to perhaps wish that this story had been conveyed in documentary form instead.
During intermission I overheard one patron ask if this was a true story, and the fact that it is is both admirable and inspiring. I applaud Ms. Lampert for sharing her unique event with us, but think that the show deserves to be as memorable as her experience. West Side Story in Chinese would be tough to forget, but The Soup Comes Last is a little easier to let slip.
Kitchen Theater Company