Saturday, March 07, 2015

English/Chinese combo in "Chinglish" a great evening in translation

Evan Whitfield and Kathy Hsieh (Michael Brunk)
ArtsWest (co-production with SiS Productions)
through March 29, 2015

The absorbing new work, Chinglish, by David Henry Hwang, at ArtsWest is a tightly written play with a top-notch cast, directed with panache by Annie Lareau. It's also challenging for the audience, because more than half of it is in Mandarin Chinese!

Daniel (Evan Whitfield) begins the play by showing us signage where Chinese translators have badly translated signs from Chinese into English. (see below) He warns us that if we learn nothing else from his "how to do business in China" talk, we should know this: Bring your own translator!

A screen then tells us that the time is three years earlier. We'll need that screen as almost another character, since we will need the translations that follow hot and heavy as rapid fire Chinese and halting bad translations fill the rest of the evening. 

Daniel brings Peter (Guy Nelson) with him to translate and help him win a business deal with a minister (Hing Lam) and vice-minister (Kathy Hsieh) to make signs for a new cultural center. We, the audience, feel very similarly to Daniel as he watches the unfolding negotiations, but doesn't understand anything. We do have the translations, though, so we're a step ahead of Daniel. 

But Daniel is smart enough to realize a lot of very important interaction is taking place. Then, even as things appear to be moving forward well, the vice-minister seems to reject the deal. After the meeting, another meeting is set at a restaurant and the vice-minister appears and wishes to speak privately, in English! 

She reveals several layers of delicate and perhaps illegally-imparted information to him because she feels he is a "good man" and they find a certain attraction to each other. But Daniel isn't sure if she is really flirting with him, or if he is misinterpreting pigeon-English for an invitation.

Without giving away more plot points, best unfolded as you watch, and more fun for not knowing, this is a terrifically smart script about how we interact with different cultures that are not at all developed from any similar histories or philosophies. Knowing that the cast knew extremely little Mandarin Chinese and most had to study very, very hard (even if ethnically Chinese by heritage) to speak the fluent Chinese we hear, we can be even more impressed with the cast's achievement.

Supported by Audrey Fan, Moses Yim and Serin Ngai, there is gorgeous technical support by a really helpful sound design (Harry Todd Jamieson and Jay Weinland), spare and suggestive set design (Carey Wong and Burton Yuen), and simple, yet effective costumes (Kelly McDonald).

Whitfield and Hsieh have a lot of chemistry together. It's enjoyable to watch them work. Hsieh, in particular, gives what is one of her best performances, perhaps with the support of director Lareau. 

One pet peeve: leave unimportant parts of the set alone! If you need to pull on a table or a bed, move that. There are hanging grates, suggesting bamboo, and they're moved in order to suggest a change of location. However, changing them from the middle of the set to the side, for instance, means absolutely nothing to an audience and just looks like directing for directing's sake. (And I'm can ignore that digression.)

This is a great script with a talented cast and a wonderful opportunity to be "shown" how it feels to be out of your element and need to adjust to another culture. You will not be able to guess what will happen, and there are lots of surprises, which are fun to experience. (However, kids under 14 or so should probably stay home.)

For more information, go to ArtsWest or call 206-938-0339.

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