Chinglish

A welcome divergence from the woefully monochromatic theatrical tradition in Seattle, David Henry Hwang’s (M. Butterfly) Chinglish comes to ArtsWest, courtesy of ArtsWest and SIS Productions.

American businessman Daniel (Evan Whitfield) must travel to China for a life-changing venture–making well-translated signs for a new cultural center in the province. In his attempt to acquire the deal, he meets frosty Vice Minister Xi Yan (Kathy Hsieh) and they embark on a love affair, wrapped up in tawdry business dealings. Daniel must learn to navigate the surprisingly unfamiliar social avenues of Chinese culture, with the help of his associate Peter (Guy Nelson) or he risks losing everything.

It is wonderful to see a play that takes both itself and its audience seriously enough to actually have actors speak a non-English language on stage. Much–at least half–of the dialogue is in Mandarin, with English supertitles. This is a production from which the audience will actually learn a thing or two–concrete, important things–about the nature of intercultural communication, namely the global circumstances the West finds itself in, and the dangers of ever assuming the international businessman knows what he’s doing. Chinglish does not boil either American or Chinese culture into simplistic principles, but rather criticizes the common practice of doing so. It is also, delightfully, a story in which a straight white man does not reap everything he wants from the woman he encounters in a foreign land.

Stories like this have a special place in my heart.

The set is intricate and interesting, in its own way, but quite visually distracting. The backdrop consists of images of amusingly Chinese-English translated signs, and then in front, there are a collection of white barred-panels that are rotated into varying configurations to indicate different settings. The signs in the back beg deciphering, but the panels make it impossible, and there is so much going on visually that there are times when the comparatively simple action loses the audience’s attention.

It is difficult to critique acting when it is done in a language you don’t understand, portraying a culture you are not familiar with. Kathy Hsieh and Evan Whitfield performed well together, with a fairly naturally developing relationship. Whitfield brings an affable dopiness to the American businessman, while Hsieh presents a malleable and complex character in the outwardly professional Ms. Xi. It was difficult to watch Guy Nelson visibly struggle to produce a convincing Southern English dialect, but he gets huge points for having about half of his lines in Mandarin–the quality of which I cannot judge. The supporting ensemble are very funny.

David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish (directed by Annie Lareau) plays March 5-29 at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery (4711 California Ave SW, Seattle WA 98116). For tickets, visit www.artswest.org or call 206-938-0339.

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