Thursday, October 19, 2017

Light and Dark: "The World of Extreme Happiness"

A moment in The World of Extreme Happiness (John Ulman)
The World of Extreme Happiness
Seattle Public Theater
(with SiS Productions)
Through November 5, 2017

In The World of Extreme Happiness, by playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, the Chinese people are presented with two essential choices: to stay in the country and be penniless farmers or go to the City to work in factories to try to become someone more, someone famous, someone rich. 

This is a dark look at Chinese culture, but it easily resonates with any subculture, anywhere in the world, where people toil in thankless jobs that sap their courage, individuality, aspiration, belief, or health. If Cowhig wrote it about American field workers or factory workers, it would be no less applicable.

But if she did write it about America, it might be that audiences would be less open to consuming what she’s presenting. We don’t want to think about the unceasing toil that many people worldwide provide when we use what they’ve created, whether it’s Apple products or organic strawberries.

So, we meet Sunny Li (Mika Swanson), after we see her parents at her birth, so disappointed that she is female that she is literally thrown into a slop bucket. Fate intervenes, and she is saved. Immediately after that, we see her at age 18, having spent four years already in a factory, cleaning toilets. She has sacrificed herself to provide money so that her younger brother (Kevin Lin) can stay in school and graduate, something that she never got to do.

She meets a co-worker, Ming Ming (Maile Wong) who introduces her to an empowerment coach, Mr. Destiny (Nina Williams-Teramachi, in one of the funniest moments of the play), and attempts to propel herself into a promotion using those techniques. This sequence is, at once, a mimicry of American self-help and a sign of how hungry China is to mimic and appropriate such media-promoted ideas.

We are also introduced, in a sort of “movie split screen” aspect, to a prosperous woman, Artemis (Kathy Hsieh) who has herself found success by creating a huge media company and the prosperous head of Sunny’s factory, James (Van Lang Pham), who create a competition to find a simple factory worker who can star as a factory success. Sunny tries for the spot and wins it.

Dark forces, though, are at work to control prosperity in China, and once the plotlines meet, the comedy stops in a fairly abrupt manner. Sunny had been given a mysterious piece of paper by her old boss (Allan Go), but she can’t read it. Eventually, she does learn and discovers that it is an underground revolutionary pamphlet. Now that Sunny has learned so much, she has to come to terms with whether she’s helping herself to success or if success as she is discovering it makes as much sense as it did.

Director Desdemona Chiang has a lot to manage in this cinematic play. It’s a bit of a challenge for audiences to follow the plot. The cast generally does a good job with their characters, though the women all are more centered in their characters than the men. Perhaps it’s because, for once, this was written by a woman. Swanson does a particularly good job at helping us like Sunny and become affected by her journey of self-discovery.

This is a script with many layers and is not necessarily instantly understood. For many, that will be a very good thing. If you enjoy sifting through scenes in a play to determine what the playwright might be trying to tell you, this will definitely engage those thoughts. 

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