Feb. 27 Syracuse Stage: Chinglish

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‘Chinglish’ parlays cultural misunderstandings into a hilarious theatrical experience

But David Henry Hwang’s cross-cultural comedy, smartly set in this Syracuse Stage production, could have been so much more…

By Michael O’Connor

The difficulty in crafting translations extends far beyond merely substituting a word from one language with a corresponding word from another.  Translations require knowledge of the entire context: communicative, textual, as well as cultural and historical.  While this is complex and difficult enough when one is merely translating street signs, it becomes significantly more challenging when one is trying to translate ideas, intentions, emotions, actions and practices.

It is this difficulty of communicating across differences that stands at the center of David Henry Hwang’s bi-lingual play, Chinglish.  The current Syracuse Stage production yields a highly enjoyable comedy with wonderful humor that never quite manages to fully translate the experiences it explores.

In the play’s primary plot, American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Peter O’Connor) is in China trying to revive his family business (and his own disgraced career) by selling his services to not only produce Chinese signs but also properly translate them into English.

Cavanaugh engages the services of self-proclaimed business consultant and translator Peter Timms (Jeff Locker), a man who has exaggerated the scope of his experience.  Together, the two attempt to navigate the serpentine path of conducting business in China — a place that not only has few formal rules and significant corruption, but also relies upon numerous unwritten codes of behavior.  While Peter’s knowledge of convention and the language is impeccable, we quickly learn that he lacks any real business sense.  Moreover, what limited expertise he does posses is seriously outdated now that China has transformed herself into a global market player.

Chinglish gets going in earnest when Cavanaugh and Timms meet with local government officials Cai Guoliang (Jian Xin) and Xi Yan (Tina Chillip).  The events from this meeting culminate in an extramarital affair between Cavanaugh and Yan, Guoliang’s complete loss of status, and Cavanaugh’s revelation of his own insignificance.

These events occur at a breakneck pace throughout the play.  One of the most impressive aspects of the present production is Stage Manager Laura Jane Collins’s orchestration of the many complex set arrangements that accompany the 17 scene changes over the course of the play.  This is accomplished by a fairly simple set wherein a sense of place is created through the use of a few key pieces of furniture that could quickly be carried on and off a relatively bare stage. Credit Scenic Designer Timothy Mackabee with constructing the set that allows for these quick changes without disrupting the play’s flow.

The set’s most remarkable feature is the use of a blank section of the wall above the stage for English translation projections of the lines spoken in Mandarin Chinese. (This feature allows English-speaking audiences to follow along a play whose dialogue is half English and half Mandarin.)  The projected text provides the vast majority of humor in this play, as the audience hears the lines spoken in English while seeing English translations of the Mandarin mistranslations provided by governmental translators.  The results are often hilarious.

These misunderstandings also raise larger questions about human relationships.  During the love scenes with Cavanaugh, Yan’s inner thoughts (spoken in Mandarin so her lover will not understand them) are projected for the benefit of the audience.  The result here is not hilarity, but recognition that despite their physical attraction and real affection Yan and Cavanaugh are unable to connect and understand one-another.

The poignancy of this barrier to communication and connection is further developed as O’Connor and Chillip display believable chemistry and intimacy as their characters develop into lovers battling the inevitable language and cultural barriers.  The pair’s thoughts, as revealed to the audience through projected translations, belie any appearance of a transcendent human connection.  It is hardly surprising, then, that their conflicting cultural assumptions soon bring the affair to a screeching halt.

While O’Connor and Chillip connected well during their scenes together, there were a few moments that were not entirely satisfying.  Chillip’s role is especially challenging, as it requires her to speak in a heavily accented English replete with atypical sentence construction and word choices.  This she managed admirably, conveying the intelligence and wit of her character in spite of the language barrier.  Her accent however occasionally morphed into a more typically American accent and inflections. While it did not occur enough to detract significantly from the performance, it was nevertheless noticeable and a bit distracting.

O’Connor never really exuded the business acumen and interpersonal skills one might reasonably expect from a businessman of his character’s considerable experience. When we learn Cavanaugh’s backstory as a part of the infamous Enron scandal, the thought of a small town businessman overwhelmed by the situation in which he finds himself rings a bit false.

I had the exact opposite experience upon learning the backstory of Jeff Locker’s character, Peter Timms.  Locker was immediately more believable, and his portrayal had a greater sense of nuance.

Near the end of the play, Locker has a brilliant scene with Guoliang.  While the two bemoan the loss of their China (in pre-market reform), Locker’s portrayal clearly shows his character’s anger with Guoliang beginning to shift into a desire for acceptance within China.  The audience can now see the similarity between the positions of Timms and Guoliang: Both love China, but China has no longer has any need for them — a point driven home by Guoliang’s suggestion that they are each like the workers whose bodies became incorporated in the great wall when they died building it.

In spite of their growing camaraderie, Guoliang and Timms remain somewhat stilted in their interactions when they recognize that they are becoming obsolete. While this is no happy ending for either of these men, they are nevertheless able to salvage some sense of dignity through their human connection with one-another.

As the play came to an end I found myself wishing there had been more scenes like the one between Timms and Guoliang.  The strength of their connection provided the viewer a window into the complex issue of human relationships that cross barriers, either linguistic or cultural. Their final scene lingered on the human experience of that disconnect, and did not shy away from the pain and heartache of that experience.

The problem with Chinglish is that the pervasive feeling of dislocation and cultural misunderstanding too often culminates in a punch line.  The play opens up important and interesting questions about the experience of cultural differences in a globalized world, yet it seems to actively discourage any attempt for a nuanced connection with that experience.

The break-up of Yan and Cavanaugh due to the inevitable cultural misunderstandings is never really explored.  Instead, the play concludes with a three-year jump into the future, where we learn that Cavanaugh and his wife have reconciled and visit China regularly — even staying with Chillip and her husband. As such, the issues explored by the play are given a hollow resolution (and a trite, happy ending) without any real exploration of how such a conclusion is possible.

That leaves the viewer to enjoy the play only as escape and spectacle — a shame, because Chinglish could have been so much more.

WhatChinglish, by David Henry Hwang, directed by May Adrales
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where:  Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
, NY
Performance reviewed: Thursday, February 27 (final dress rehearsal)
Performance run:  Plays through March 16
Length:  About 1 hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets:  $30-$52; $18 children under 18 and SU students; $35 under 40
Call: 315-443-3275 or www.SyracuseStage.org 
Family guide:  adult situations, profanity

Copyright 2014, CNY Cafe Momus

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