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Two Perspectives on Chinglish

Chinglish 2011-10-09 0141: From left to right, Jennifer Lim(林真华, Gary Wilmes(加里·维尔梅斯).Photo by Michael McCabe.

Chinglish, the new play by Tony Award-winner David Henry Hwang (M.Butterfly), opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre October 27th.   INY critics, Simone Martelle, final year MFA playwriting student at Columbia University, and Simon Frisch, fourth year composition major at Juilliard who spent this past summer traveling through China with his brother, give you their two takes on the show.  

Simone Martelle: 

Directed by Obie-winning director Leigh Silverman (In the Wake; Go Back to Where You Are), Chinglish tells the story of an American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), who arrives in Guiyang, China hoping to get a sign-making contract for his family’s firm. He soon discovers that achieving such a goal is more complicated than one would expect; as differences in language, customs, manners and even love get in his the way; as the young businessman falls for the beautiful, mysterious Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim)

From the moment Cavanaugh appears on stage touting a power point show full of of mistranslations, you know what the central comedic device of this play is: misinterpretation. Mistranslations such as: “Take notice of safe: the slippery are very crafty” (Slippery Slopes Ahead), or, my personal favorite, “F*** the certain price of goods” (dry goods pricing department) are hilarious, and watching Mr. Cavanaugh butcher ‘I love you’ in Chinese four different ways makes for a very memorable scene.  However, after a while, the gag of constant mistranslation began to feel a bit like a one-trick pony.

Chinglish 2011-10-09 0384: From left to right, Christine Lin(林逸扬),Jennifer Lim(林真华),Gary Wilmes (加里·维尔梅斯), Stephen Pucci(普士梵). Photo by Michael McCabe.

Perhaps the humor wouldn’t have worn thin if, even once, we as the audience were allowed to feel what it was like to not understand.  It would have been nice if, for even a few lines, we didn’t get the joke until later. Instead, we had subtitles, which, while excellently integrated into the set, meant that we were never afforded that luxury.  Of course, it is easy to understand why.  There is nothing worse, as an audience member, than watching a play one simply doesn’t understand and it would have been an easy trap for the playwright if he had allowed too much confusion, especially given that the play is written and performed in both English and Chinese.  However, I feel that David Henry Hwang may well have played it a little too safe, with a play that is so precisely structured and subtitled, just to keep us continuously in the loop.   This did a disservice to us, lessening our empathy for any one character by making us just observers to their plight, instead of feeling it along with them.

The play isn’t helped much the fact that few of the characters had much emotional complexity.  Gary Wilmes’ performance in particular felt somewhat superficial, as he failed to add nuance to his American naivety or show much emotional depth.   Other characters, especially the translators, were more clowns or caricatures than real people, there purely to make the audience laugh. However, the exception was Jennifer Lim, who really did stand out as excellent.  Not only was her part the best written, but she also delivered a stellar performance with grace and subtlety.

I found myself perplexed by the occasional monologues that Xi Yan was given throughout the play.  The lights would change, everyone else would freeze and she would address us, as the audience and tell us her thoughts.  Not only did these moments of breaking the fourth wall seem odd in a play that was otherwise very naturalistic; but they were also completely unnecessary exposition.  We didn’t need them to understand what was happening nor to understand her. They regrettably took away from Jennifer Lim’s outstanding performance.

Finally, Chinglish not only felt long, it was. There is no reason it couldn’t have been shortened to 90 minutes, and most likely, if it had been, it might have been a tighter and more fun to watch.

Simon Frisch: 

While stuck in a characteristic traffic jam in Beijing this summer, my family noted with amusement a sign on the car in front of us reading “Baby on road.” Chinglish is a source of endless mirth, but the translation issues go both ways. I also recall an explanation from my brother on why ‘things’, in the sense of commodities,  are referred to in Chinese as  ‘East-West.’  Xu Yan, the fictional Vice-Minister for the Arts of Guiyang (a “small town of four million”) in David Henry Hwang’s newly opened play, Chinglish, cites an embarrassing cover from the Max Planck Institute’s journal that was intended to feature a Chinese poem but instead copied an advertisement from a house of ill-repute. In this play, these cosmetic errors come to represent the more profound issue of effectively mediating between two utterly different cultures, a challenge faced by any Westerner with business in China.

Chinglish 2011-10-09 0454: From left to right, Johnny Wu(伍贤中, Angela Li (林丹扉), Christine Lin(林逸扬), Gary Wilmes(加里·维尔梅斯), Jennifer Lim(林真华).Photo by Michael McCabe.

Telling both sides of the story with accuracy – particularly when the play is set in China’s relatively obscure Guizhou province – requires a great deal of guidance. Cue Ken Smith and Joanna Lee, the cultural advisors for Chinglish, whose influence can be seen everywhere in the play from the character interactions to the set design. In preparation for his part, Gary Wilmes (who plays American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh), the only cast-member not familiar with both English and Chinese, was coached on authentic Chinese cuisine and even brought out to Flushing for a Chinese banquet to induce the feeling, as Smith puts it, of being “suitably ‘foreign’” (a strong case for method acting).

Earlier, playwright David Henry Hwang and director Leigh Silverman had flown into the city of Guiyang to find inspiration. “We were essentially there to make the show look and feel like Guizhou, rather than just generic China,” said Smith, who with Lee arranged meetings with artists and businessmen across the entire cultural spectrum. Giving examples, he continued, “The art is either real or copied from real stuff from Guiyang. The minority dolls on the shelves were shipped from the tourism ministry of the province.” And, as Lee explained, “even the chauffeur, who has one line, has a personal business card separate from that of the other character played by the same actor.” Through extreme attention to detail, this fictional play paradoxically becomes one of the most rounded, ‘real’ illustrations of East and West culture barriers available without having to endure that half-day flight across the globe – and I say that having gone through it myself. If anything, the hilarity of translation mishaps is amplified knowing just how accurately the communication experience is represented.

Concludes Ken, “I think the key thing is David Henry Hwang’s use of language as a metaphor for the fragility of human relations. Even when the characters do use the same words, they still mean entirely different things.” Idioms, it seems, are particularly susceptible: only rarely, when saying “my hands are tied,” is one referring to bondage.

Tickets are available online and at the box office of the Longacre Theatre at 220 West 48th St until February 12th, 2012.

-Simon Frisch

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