The Lyric Stage Company
140 Clarendon Street
Through December 23, 2012
Barlow Adamson* as Daniel Cavanaugh; Alexander Platt* as Peter Timms; Tiffany Chen as Miss Qian/Prosecutor Li; Michael Tow as Cai Guoliang ;Celeste Oliva* as Xi Yan; Chen Tang* as Bing/Judge Xu; Geming Liz Eng as Zhao
*Denotes member of Actor's Equity Association.
Directed by Larry Coen; Scenic Design, Dahlia Al-Habieli; Costume Design, Emily Woods Hogue; Lighting Design, Matt Whiton; Sound Design, Arshan Gailus; Projection Design, Garrett Herzig; Production Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Stage Manager, Sarah Morrison; Properties, Dahlia Al-Habieli; Language Coach, Gail Wang
Globalization has taken root in Boston with the Lyric Stage Company's production of Ch’ing-lish written by David Henry Hwang. “This is the best-selling play in the Lyric Stage’s history,” the house manager announced to a full house in her pre-play remarks.
Tell me a time half the play you’ve watched was in Chinese. And that the captions for the actors’ Chinese lines were translated in an electronic crawl on a screen across the top of the stage. And that four of the seven actors were Chinese. And the playwright was Asian-American. And that you enjoyed the heck out of it.
You want sociology, moral dilemmas, geo-politics, cultural collisions, history, a love story, juicy humor, fine acting? Ch’ing-lish had it all… a comedy of manners that made you laugh and think at the same time.
David Cavanaugh, an American businessman (Barlow Adamson) from Cleveland, visits the city of Guiyang, China in search of a contract for his sign company. He hires Alexander Platt, a wily ex-pat British professor (Peter Timms) with impeccable Chinese and a score to settle to act as his translator.
Minister Xi Yan and businessman Daniel Cavanaugh/Photo by Mark S. Howard
Midwesterner Cavanaugh has no clue about his host's culture. His social skills are earnest but sophomoric. While trying to make deals with Minister Cai Guoliang (Michael Tow), and his wife, Vice Minister Xi Yan (Celeste Oliva), he steps on one cultural landmine after another. His attempts at learning Chinese phrases are wonderfully and unintentionally comic. Cavanaugh is embarrassingly American.
Cavanaugh’s stereotypes of the Chinese are matched by revelatory ones (spoken in Chinese, which Cavanaugh doesn’t understand but we read as captions on the screen over the stage) by the Minister, his wife; and Translator/Prosecutor Li (Tiffany Chen) have of Americans - evil, rude, without culture. The results are often hilarious and refreshingly non-PC. They represent obstacles both sides have to perceive before any business, or friendship, can be forged.
There are few cultural chasms as deep as that between America and China. The character of Cavanaugh as a sign maker eager to improve the signage in this Chinese city is a perfect vehicle for playwright Hwang to use humorous language to illustrate mutual distrust and insular ignorance, each culture believing it is superior to the other. A sign for a bathroom for the handicapped in the Beijing Airport reads “Deformed Man’s Toilet.”
Cavanaugh will have his work cut out for him if he can persuade the Minister to award him the contract for signage for the new Arts Center. In the meantime, the Minister is looking to further his own career with his choice.
The love story that unexpectedly blooms in the second act demonstrates the gulf between how the cultures view and value love and marriage. The conflict between Cavanaugh and Xi Yan gives us a chance to contemplate which culture more effectively manages the moral terrain when marriage falters.
The play is a sandbox for its set, lighting, and sound designers. The set, exquisitely evocative of a Chinese office/restaurant/hotel, is cleverly rearranged between scenes. The sophisticated light design directs your eyes and sets mood. It takes a few minutes to get accustomed to multi tasking: watch the captions floating across a screen above the stage, the facial expressions of the actors, register whether you’re listening to English or Chinese, and try to figure out the plot, which is a story inside a story inside a story. It can get confusing, and that’s the point.
Peter Timms as Alexander Platt and Michael Tow as Minister Cai Guoliang deliver solid performances as men who have their own interests in mind. Barlow Anderson is a wonderful study - a slap-on-the-back, glad-handing businessman trying to recover his dignity after being involved in a spectacular scandal in the USA that he tries to hide. When he desperately reveals it because he believes the deal has collapsed, it ends up elevating his status with the Chinese officials. (Go figure.)
Celeste Oliva as Xi Yan is a joy to watch. Using expressive hand gestures, comic timing, body language, shrewd business acumen, and a deep understanding of China’s moral code, she’s the lynchpin of the story. Her moral compass is what ultimately helps Barlow’s Cavanaugh to find his true north.
Director Larry Coen has a firm grip on what playwright Hwang is up to. His actors have worked with language coaches to master dialogue. The play’s conclusion is a little too tidy but so be it. Chinese-American relations can use a little optimism.
Asians represent the fastest growing population in Boston. There were more Asians in the audience tonight than I’ve seen in ten years of attending plays in Boston. For years, theater companies have met with limited success at reaching out to minorities. Whether Ch’ing-lish is a one hit wonder or a trend remains to be seen. Either way, the Lyric Stage Company has taken a bold step forward.