Tuesday, July 26, 2011

'Chinglish' Translates to a Terrifically Insightful Dramedy -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play by
David Henry Hwang
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Through July 31, 2011

In recently awarding @@@@@ to the touring production of West Side Story now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, I strongly advocated that it is a show any Chicago-area fan of musical theater make a point of trying to see.

Although I am breaking my string of maximum-rating reviews and bestowing “only” @@@@1/2 to Chinglish, I just as strongly advise any lover of great dramatic or comedic theater to go see Goodman Theatre’s world premiere production.

For even in a being a trifle shy of perfect—or that much over my head—it is clearly one of the best plays that will debut in Chicago this year, and a Broadway-bound new work by one of the world’s most acclaimed playwrights, David Henry Hwang.

In addition to being completely topical in its subject matter--which pertains to American businesses expanding into China, where in addition to the challenges posed by politics, corruption and tradition is the tricky matter of often amusingly imprecise translations between English and Mandarin (and other dialects)--Chinglish features the most innovatively modern staging I have ever seen, certainly when it comes to non-musicals.

Making great use of turntables to seamlessly change scenery between numerous settings, David Korins’ set design is absolutely phenomenal. It should get @@@@@ all by itself. And it wouldn’t be at all shocking if Chinglish winds up winning numerous Tony Awards next June.

Although it has been announced that this production—directed by Leigh Silverman—will transfer to Broadway, the most recent article I found on the matter indicates that its unknown whether the entire cast will go to New York.

There's no reason why it shouldn't. 

James Waterston plays Daniel Cavanaugh, a Clevelander who has assumed leadership of his family's sign-making business. He has traveled to China and hired a consultant named Peter (Stephen Pucci) in hopes of convincing a Minister of the Guanxi province (played by Larry Zhang) to award him a signage contract for a new cultural center.

While much humor is derived by the often mistranslated communication among these three characters, it is Jennifer Lim as Vice-Minister Xu Yan who provides the primary interaction with Waterston and raises Chinglish well beyond just a comedy. Presuming Lim heads to Broadway, it's a pretty safe bet that she earn at least a Tony nomination.

Although the play only runs at the Goodman until Sunday, July 31, there are enough twists to preclude me from further describing the narrative. While I thought the entire show was wonderful--in addition to amazing scenic design, the use of music between scenes was also strikingly good, I was left a bit fuzzy by the supposed motivations of a few characters. But this is a play I certainly wouldn't mind exploring again, even if it's a few years from now in a production likely not to be  quite this good. So if you can catch it before it leaves town, by all means do so. Even--or especially--with a good portion of the dialogue in Mandarin and translated through supertitles, Chinglish is a play that speaks volumes.

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