Berkeley Repertory Theatre and South Coast Repertory
Lyric Theatre, HK Academy for Performing Arts
Reviewed: Mar 1
David Henry Hwang's comedy about miscommunication and misunderstanding between two cultures has garnered much acclaim in the US, winning the Chinese-American playwright a Joseph Jefferson Award (for best new work) in Chicago where it premiered two years ago.
Now running as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, will the bilingual play - and Hwang's humour - translate as well here where audiences are more familiar with the Chinese language and culture?
Inspired by the English translation errors commonly found in mainland signs - such as "The slippery are very crafty" (slippery slopes ahead) and "F*** the certain price of goods" (dry good price valuation point) - Chinglish follows intrepid American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, where he tries to secure a contract to supply correctly translated sign posts for the city's new arts centre.
Ironically, Cavanaugh speaks no Putonghua and has to rely on one English expatriate, Peter (Brian Nishii), who promises to help him to interpret, and to circumvent the cultural minefield when negotiating with Minister Cai (Raymond Ma) and his deputy Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec). Cavanaugh is told, for instance, to always put himself down as that is acceptable social etiquette when dealing with the Chinese.
The problems and comedy begin when communication is jarred, not only by the language barrier, but also by interpretations that are tainted with cultural prejudices and hidden personal agendas on both sides.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, Chinglish is a relevant piece of contemporary theatre reflecting the growing number of American companies setting up business on the mainland; many are eager to learn not only Putonghua but also the local customs and traditions to increase their chance of success. However, the work also plays to dated cultural stereotypes, rendering the portrayal of the Chinese characters unrealistic. Many mainland Chinese in senior positions in the public and private sectors are very savvy and speak fluent English today. The lightning romance between Xi Yan and Cavanaugh also seems far-fetched.
Moggridge is convincing as the bewildered and somewhat naïve Cavanaugh while Krusiec's seductive Xi Yan is, at times, emotionally confused (but that has more to do with the writing than her acting). Ma, Nishii and Celeste Den (who plays an interpreter) all give comic relief to an otherwise dialogue-heavy play. Those long pauses during moments of miscommunication also begin to wear towards the end.
A highlight of the production is the set from David Korins, which smoothly and swiftly morphs into different locales after scene changes.
Chinglish, part of the 2013 Hong Kong Arts Festival, runs until tomorrow