Sunday, June 14, 2015

Palo Alto Players: Chinglish

Joyce F. Liu and Chris Mahle. Photo courtesy Joyce Goldschmid.

Comedians since Plautus have used misunderstandings to make audiences laugh. For nearly as long, unskilled playwrights have overused this technique, dragging scenes out far longer than they need to be or unnecessarily obfuscating the characters’ viewpoints. However, David Henry Hwang’s cross-cultural comedy Chinglish uses the comical misunderstanding with a master’s stroke. There is a point at which the main character, after describing several incredible Chinese-to-English mistranslations, stops, saying “I could go on, but…” Indeed you could, and thank God everyone in this play goes on just enough to keep it moving.

Misunderstandings – cultural, professional, and romantic – are at the heart of Chinglish, which combines a rollicking comedy of manners with a mid-scale boardroom drama. Former Enron salesman Daniel Cavanaugh (Chris Mahle) attempts to sell his family’s sign-making services to  a small (only 4 million!) town in China, but faulty translators, political corruption, and a whirlwind affair with a minor political official causes the business trip to slowly devolve until it stands at the edge of disaster.

Mahle’s Daniel Cavanaugh is a very interesting comedy character, a composed businessman who quickly falls apart when dealing with his Chinese clientele. The main characters in most comedies are either stoic straight men or wacky pratfallers, but Mahle switches his character’s status as frequently as the numerous English-Mandarin bilingual characters change their language.

Other notable cast members include Jeffrey Sun as Minister Cai Guoliang, a nepotistic government official. Sun plays his character as externally fun-loving but internally calculating, not because he’s necessarily sinister but because he’s found he has to make compromises to get ahead in politics. Cai is played up as the villain as well as a remnant from China’s prior Cultural Revolution era, but he faces his eventual comeuppance with a stoicism rare for antagonists in a straight-up comedy.

Joyce F. Liu plays Xi Yan, a vice minister who begins an affair with Cavanaugh while simultaneously trying to get his signs to go through. Liu’s performance here is excellent: She simultaneously occupies a position of power while having to act like a clown to get Daniel to understand her. Liu will make you laugh while you shake your head at the poetry of language dashed against the rocky shore of understanding.

The Palo Alto Players rendition of Chinglish is a fun, punchy comedy that’s extremely rare in both its tone and its excellent quality. It only lets jokes go on for as far as they are funny, and the mistranslation-based humor stays fresh and interesting for the entire performance. It runs for another three weeks, and if you have the chance to see it, you should definitely go.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.