Regional Reviews: San Francisco
In Chinglish (a word meaning the mash-up of Chinese and English), David Henry Hwang deftly constructs a play about the language mix-ups and cultural misunderstandings that our global, no-more-borders world has spawned. Palo Alto Players has congregated a superb cast, all of whom are new to the company and six who speak fluent Mandarin (an important resume filler to be in play with close to 50% of the dialogue in Chinese). The result is a fast-paced evening where most laughs come as we read projected, super-scripted translations of the on-stage Mandarin bantering, often leaving us finishing one chuckle just as we begin another.
To a person, this cast delivers again and again. As Cleveland businessman Daniel, Chris Mahle is clearly a fish out of water as he tiptoes cautiously, but increasingly assertively into this high-relationship, full-of-secrets world of Chinese business deals. He relies on his business consultant Peter Timms for guidance through this foreign mixture of smiling niceties and shark-like arrows (an excellent Michael T. McCune whose skilled English accent, rapid-fire Mandarin, and confident stage presence defy that this is his first venture as a thespian). Along the way, he finds that an early foe, the sophisticatedly beautiful Cultural Vice-Minister Xi Yan (Joyce F. Liu) suddenly turns into friend as he negotiates his desired signage contract. That friendship slips soon into something much more sexy and tantalizing as the two retreat to his hotel room for further collaboration. Ms. Liu particularly shines throughout this production as she shows multiple sides of the complex maze of relationships Xi Yan must maneuver to stay afloat and succeed in this new world of modern China. Together, Ms. Liu and Mr. Mahle bring heart, intrigue, pathos, and singular determination to their individual and joint portrayals. And they also produce the evening's funniest of many funny moments as Daniel attempts to say "I love you" in Mandarin (variously coming out as "Dirty sea mud," "Snail loves cow," and "Frog loves pee").
As Culture Minister Cai Guoliang, who smilingly assures Daniel that he wants a deal for accurate signage, Jeffrey Sun hilariously walks a tightrope trying to appease the consultant Peter whom he owes a big favor; a Party official who frequently interrupts by phone to demand acrobats at an upcoming event; and an unseen, hen-pecking wife who insists her sister's husband's signage company win the bid. The Minister's convoluted journey and where it ends marks how hilarious on the surface but how dangerous underneath the current business landscape of Chinese business negotiations can actually be.
Chinese interpreters pop in and out of the many scenes as each only gets louder, more stubborn, and more inept in their attempts to bridge the two languages. Hats off to Dianna Hua Chung, Isabel Anne To, and Phil Wongall of whom play hired and fired interpreters and then reappear with fun and flair in multiple, other roles.
Mr. Hwang's script unfolds in a cinematic manner with its many short scenes, much like being at a foreign film theatre where we both watch and read. Settings twirl before us via a somewhat awkward, hand-turned set to reveal Designer Kuo-Hao Lo's simple, yet overall effective Asian-appropriate scenes. Director Lily Tung Crystal keeps the pace flowing, the laughs coming, and the twists and turns of the script highlighted by just the right mixture of comedic chaos and heart-touching singular moments.
Having already seen Chinglish several years ago with a stellar cast at Berkeley Repertory Company, I was a bit wary what it would be like seeing it once again. As produced by Palo Alto Players, I was totally delighted, entertained, and am ready to give a whole-hearted recommendation to others to see this fine production of a well-written script.
Palo Alto Player's Chinglish continues through June 28, 2015, on the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available online at www.PAplayers.org or by calling 650-329.0891.
Palo Alto Players has also just announced its 85th seasontheir "Tony-est" season yet..
- Eddie Reynolds