Found in translation

David Henry Hwang mines linguistic mix-ups to hilarious effect in his hit play, writes Kavita Daswani

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 6:11pm

A love triangle, devious business machinations, bumbling bureaucrats and chronically ill-timed miscommunication: playwright David Henry Hwang pulls all these elements together in his hit play, Chinglish.

The production - which has garnered unanimously glowing praise and has so far been seen by audiences in Chicago, Broadway, Berkeley and Costa Mesa - lands this week courtesy of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

The premise is simple: Daniel Cavanaugh, a businessman from Midwest America who owns a family-run sign-making company, arrives in China to lobby for a lucrative contract to take over the production of government signs, hoping to eradicate the erroneous ways in which they are translated. For example: a sign that should read "Slippery Slopes Ahead" is translated as "Take notice of safe, the slippery are very crafty." (Hwang said in earlier interviews that he got the idea for Chinglish after seeing plenty of comically inaccurate signs on the mainland.)

While there, Cavanaugh encounters shady politicians, a shrewd seductress and governmental bungling. The writing is sharp and acerbic, never mean-spirited, and turns the inevitable culture clashes and obfuscations into rich comedic fare.

"We are so excited," says director Leigh Silverman, a two-time Obie (Off Broadway Theatre Awards) winner. "It's always been our dream that this would play outside the US and it's just a thrilling opportunity for us."

There is, indeed, a universality in Hwang's writing that transcends cultural boundaries: it isn't necessary to understand the intricacies of miscommunication because such mistranslations can happen anywhere. "I think it's a story we can all relate to in a lot of ways," Silverman says.

"We do business with people where we don't speak the same language. There's a love story here also which people can hook into. They can see on stage people struggling in a way they can identify with, being foolish in a way they can identify with, trying desperately to communicate.

Any foreigner with any experience of the mainland can especially relate to it and laugh about it
Lily Fan, Producer

"It's sometimes hard enough to communicate with people when you do speak the same language, and when you can't, and have to talk about business matters, and matters of love, it adds another layer, and makes a funny and surprising story that is really ripe for theatre. The issue to me wasn't 'will this play speak to people?', but instead 'how do you make a production that will feel accessible?' It should be a completely satisfying piece of theatre," the director says.

That seemed certainly to have been the case at a Saturday afternoon showing of the play last September at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where the packed house laughed in all the right places.

"I'm very hopeful that people in Hong Kong will embrace it," says producer Lily Fan, herself born in Hong Kong, and who has been with Chinglish since its Chicago debut in 2011. "Any foreigner with any experience of the mainland can especially relate to it and laugh about it and it's still something so dear to their hearts. Being able to bring it to Hong Kong makes us feel like it's a full cycle."

Not that Fan and her team don't have other challenges. The play runs at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa until today, and then starts at the Lyric Theatre of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts on March 1.

"We have three days between closing in Costa Mesa and being on stage in Hong Kong," Fan says. "Getting all the bodies and props and costumes over there, being able to settle the whole crew into a theatre they are unfamiliar with, it will be an interesting challenge."

To help move things along, the set that has been used in the US productions is being recreated in Hong Kong. That alone has presented logistical challenges. The set is an ingenious network of revolving rooms - a minister's office, a hotel suite. "It's a Broadway design but we've had to go to a Chinese shop and show them so that they can put it together, using things purchased from a Shanghai vendor. There is some irony in it, and the set designer thinks it's so funny and great that they're building a show about China that has come back from the US."

The actors, while slightly intimidated by the quick turnaround between closing in one city and opening in another halfway across the globe, are nonetheless excited about the opportunity. The bilingual - and occasionally trilingual - cast includes the Taiwan-born Michelle Krusiec, who plays Xi Yan, the sophisticated vice minister of culture. She says baffling things to Daniel in Putonghua that after translation become: "Use at your own risk. English writing firm currently enter through the back door. Tai Quai sister open door. So, will not close. Now you know."

The earnest Daniel is played by Alex Moggridge, who initially consults with mainland-based expat Peter Timms, played by the trilingual Brian Nishii.

"I've been with the show since its inception," says Nishii. "David called me out of the blue when he was still developing it, after he heard that I spoke Chinese." Nishi was an understudy in the earliest productions. Japanese by birth, he studied Chinese in college and is now fluent.

"I'm a big language person so any sort of multi-language production always excites me. And any chance to work with David is not one that any Asian-American actor would want to turn down."

Despite the numerous times Nishii has played the part of Peter, he says he still relishes being able to come out, night after night, and be a part of the on-stage conversations and scenarios that get the biggest laughs from the audience.

"It's a really fantastic play, and brilliantly written, and there's not a lot out there that speaks so smartly to current affairs," he says.

Nishii says he and his co-cast members have considered how the play might go down in Asia. "It might certainly be different than your average American crowd," he says, "but it's an interesting current play and there's plenty of humour on all sides of the language barrier."

The future of the production after its Hong Kong run is yet to be determined. Fan says there have been enquiries from possible promoters in Taiwan and Singapore, and is hopeful Chinglish will at some point get a showing in most Chinese-speaking Southeast Asian countries, as well as in countries such as Australia and Canada. There are also ongoing talks with companies in the West End, while there are plans for it to run in Boston and Houston.

"We are hoping this Hong Kong event will be our launch pad, a way for us to find a producing partner who can take the piece on in whatever way they would like to produce it," Fan says.

Silverman agrees that while playing on the mainland might be a long shot for now, there remain places such as Macau and Singapore. "It's our desire - David's and mine - that this will play to as large an audience as possible."

Lyric Theatre, Academy for Performing Arts, Fri-Mar 6, 8pm, Sat-Mar 3, also 3pm, HK$200-HK$580