SF Playhouse is all in with their take on Tony Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist David Henry Hwang‘s Chinglish: stylish set and lighting, excellent direction, and a strong ensemble cast. While there’s plenty of comic moments in Hwang’s sardonic commentary on language barriers and the effects of those miscommunications, there’s also thoughtful observations on fidelity, corporate and judicial corruption, and even nationalism.
It’s easy to find humor in a foreigner struggling with a second language evidences by countless 1930’s films with racist stereotypes, but here Hwang elevates that conceit on an intellectual level with American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barret Austin) struggling to nail down a big business deal in China and failing miserably through miscommunications in the boardroom and bedroom.
Translators are the comic foils here as they misinterpret what’s being said. We see the results in supertitles managed by Spenser Matabung projected on to the lovely paper screen set designed by Andrea Bechert. Sharon Shao and Phil Wong are the translators who add their own personal commentary to their work. Matthew Bohrer plays Peter Timms, a teacher posing as a consultant to Cavanaugh who speaks fluent Mandarin.
The well-constructed plot has Nicole Tung’s Vice Minister of Culture assisting Cavanaugh’s deal for multiple reasons: to expose her corrupt boss and get her husband promoted, and to have an affair with Cavanaugh. Alex Hsu is the corrupt minister Cai Guoliang in a touching performance.
Jeffrey Lo, who directed SF Playhouse hits The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin and Hold These Truths works his magic once again with his staging and attention to the sharp dialogue and exaggerated language failures. Poking fun at Chinese American relations makes Chinglish continually prescient and totally enjoyable.
Chinglish continues through June 10th. Tickets can be purchased online at sfplayhouse.org or by calling 415-677-9596.
The best comedic writers are like symphony composers. They prick and pique your ears. They establish conditions that make you crave exactly what they’re going to give you — tonic chord, development, discord, resolution — with the perfect number of rat-a-tat beats preceding a ker-splat punch line. One more syllable, and the whole thing would fall flat.
To witness the translation-heavy scenes in David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” which opened Wednesday, May 10, at San Francisco Playhouse, is to be in comedy’s equivalent of Davies Symphony Hall. In an Ohio sign manufacturer named Daniel (Michael Barrett Austin), hawking his wares to Chinese officials Cai Guoliang (Alex Hsu) and Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong), Hwang has cultivated scenarios so ripe and plump they seem to burst with jokes about mistranslation and cultural differences.
There’s the way translators carry on with a conversation of their own, leaving out the monolingual Daniel, who in his entitlement to having his comprehension needs centered looks like a wanderer weathering a blizzard. There’s the delicious dramatic irony enabled by rapid-fire supertitles: We know exactly why, beats later, everyone is still somehow talking about Chicago, even as the hapless Daniel can only scrape the bottom of his improv bucket to come up with one more thing to say about it.
Then there are the scrumptious pitfalls of employing an inexpert translator. Here local performer Sharon Shao proves herself a hero in the role of the mousy Miss Qian. It’s not just that her character translates “We’re a small family firm” into “His company is tiny and insignificant,” itself an accidental insight into all that business jargon conceals. Shao delivers the line with a nerd’s quiet self-satisfaction in her accomplishment. Her subtext is so clear and rich it’s like a full companion piece to Hwang’s script. In one moment, you can read “Wait, what did I say?” on her face. In the next, Miss Qian is absorbing with panic all the building tension in the room. And Shao makes the exquisite choice to translate not just text but emotion, though of course Miss Qian goes too far (a volcano where perhaps just a bit of emphasis was called for).
In the show, directed by Jeffrey Lo, the one lingua franca is grift. Everyone has some kind of false front, racket, ulterior motive that Hwang hints at then reveals, each with impeccable craftsmanship and timing.
He achieves all this without miring his comedy in cynicism. In “Chinglish,” each character is both con man and openhearted dreamer. Under Lo’s direction, each admires and sees herself in the others’ hustles, pivots, confessions and lusts. Likewise, each thirsts to be seen. Speaking the same language isn’t necessary; in fact, here it’s helpful not to. One can be more honest that way — and why bother with words when you can just pour yourselves into each other’s eyes?
Still, “Chinglish” suffers from a “So what?” problem. It backpedals right when it seems it might make a larger point about cross-cultural relationships, whether for business or pleasure. Moreover, its most poignant reveal, from savvy negotiator Xi Yan (Nicole Tung), doesn’t benefit from being written only in broken English then dissipated into a shrug. The whole show seems torn between romantic and cynical takes on human nature without having something to say about that ambivalence, other than, “… and everything turned out fine.”
Yet at the end of the play, as the white guy shuffles off and a speechifying Xi Yan and Judge Xu Geming address crowds, at least one point is sharp: The monolingual American does not end at the center of this international story.
Since its founding in 2014 by Tracy Liz Miller and Brenda Jean Foley, The Bridge Initiative has been a consistent and ardent champion of diversity and community-building. As a women-led artistic collective, they have stayed true to their vision ~ “an equitable industry where women and other groups who have historically been denied access are equitably represented and valued.”It is in this context that their productions and initiatives are invaluable mirrors through which audiences can broaden their perspectives and sensitivities. Such is the case with their current production of Elaine Romero‘s LIKE HEAVEN, a buoyant little comedy in two acts whose arc revolves around acts of bonding, betrayal, and empowerment.
It’s a fitting marriage of theatre company and playwright as Romero’s vision aligns with that of The Bridge Initiative. In her own right, Romero has established herself as a compelling voice through which the complexities of social and cultural issues ~ social justice, cultural heritage and personal identity ~ are illuminated. For EVITA at American…In LIKE HEAVEN, Romero casts her focus on one woman’s quest for self-fulfillment.
April (Brenda Jean Foley) is at the crossroads of small-town life, stuck between the conflicting pressures of personal ambition, family obligation, and a less than fulfilling marriage to Jeff (the play’s never-present but ever-looming and consequential figure). Her bag is packed, and she would be off and on her way to a singing career were it not for the persuasive entreaties of her younger sister Callie to remain…at least, for a couple more weeks.
As April stows her suitcase and dispenses with her traveling togs, she settles back into her old routine, that is, until it’s picnic time on the front lawn of their pristine neatly landscaped home. April the dreamer and Callie, the embodiment of domestic tranquility, are joined by two diametrically different personalities ~ the true-to-Scripture Trudy and Sapphire, the flamboyant champion of license ~ for a repast that evolves into an explosive set of revelations.
One revelation in particular snowballs into a chain reaction of unsettling confessions. They all may have been drinking from the same tainted well. As they confront their inconvenient truths, the foursome commences to unveil their true selves and motivations, only to test the boundaries of unadulterated friendship and personal responsibility. The joy of the play is their convergence into a chorus of encouragement that spells permission for April to spring forward.
Foley’s April is a model of understandable unsteadiness and naivete until she finds her legs and steadies herself to set out on her long-delayed adventure.
Callie (portrayed with disarming affability and balance by Natalie Andrews) is a marked contrast to April’s mercurial nature. As the primary caretaker of the household and, so it appears, the tie that binds the family, she seemingly epitomizes balance and fidelity. There is something, however, in her mysterious Mona Lisa smile at the play’s end that may make one wonder about her true intentions and motivations.
Trudy (Shonda Royall) brings her avowed faith to the gathering ~ chastising improprieties, calling out hypocrisies, and proclaiming the Word. However, for Trudy, not all is as it seems. And therein lie the makings of a dramatic twist in the narrative for which no spoilers are allowed. Let’s just say that what happens by the nearby river stays by the river…or ought to. Royall is a fireball presence on stage, delivering a robust performance and providing a delightful comic edge to the proceedings.
The jewel in the mix is Sapphire (played to perfection by Maren Maclean). She is irreverent, flamboyant, and the manifestation of “the internal slut.” Her performance is as good as it gets from a distinguished veteran of the Phoenix stage, once described by the former Arizona Republic theatre critic Kyle Lawson (RIP) as having a tongue that “takes to screwball comedy like a cat to a canary” and that, “like some denizen of the ether,” “can charm you into believing that air is water and dross is golden.” Maclean fulfills that promise with panache. She is an ethereal and uninhibited force, the embodiment of indiscretion, and an inspiration to one who may wish to emulate her spirit of freedom.
Thanks to Romero’s craftsmanship as a writer, the play does not get weighed down by gravity but is instead buoyed with precisely drawn moments of humor. She has penned four very distinctive and relatable voices. Director Samantha Wyer Bello has steered the cast’s course with a steady and sensitive hand. The set design (credit to Tiana Torrihon-Wood) and lighting choices (Stacey Walston) contribute to the play’s overall atmosphere. And the ensemble of Andrews, Foley, Maclean, and Royall delivers praiseworthy performances, heightened by an onstage chemistry that is highly entertaining.
LIKE HEAVEN, co-produced by The Bridge Initiative and Estrella Mountain Community College, completes its run of six performances on May 13th.
When playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen resigned from his residency at New Dramatists in August 2022 and published an open letter on his website explaining the reason for his decision, he expressed hope that his experience would serve as a cautionary tale for the larger theatre community, and that talking about it might prevent similar harm from happening to someone else. He was less interested in retribution or restitution than in healing, and it is in that same spirit that we’ve examined the conflict that began at New Dramatists, a nonprofit playwriting development center located in midtown Manhattan, two years ago.
“There were theatres that proactively said, ‘We want to help you. We are talking to the city government, we are writing you letters. If you want a letter, let us know, we’ll give you one.’”
Deen reportedly received such a letter from Ma-Yi Theater Company, and later that month, in any case, all New Yorkers aged 30 and older became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. That would have been the end of the matter—except that along the way, New Dramatists’ decision about vaccine eligibility letters, and the way the org chose to communicate with writers about it, became concerning for some residents, including Deen, who was serving on the Writers Executive Committee and the board of directors at the time. The conflict only escalated from there.
Read the full article from American Theatre Magazine by Alexandra Pierson here.
From Claudio Monteverdi to Benjamin Britten, the classical music canon’s best-known opera composers tend to have one thing in common: They’re men.
This weekend, the University of Maryland’s Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) presents new works by New York-based female composers Justine F. Chen and Missy Mazzoli. Though both operas take on timeless themes—including love, jealousy and the pursuit of wealth—and are at least partially set in the past, they aim to resonate with modern audiences.
“These works show opera is still living and breathing,” said soprano Kira Neary, a second-year Master of Music student who will perform in Mazzoli’s “Proving Up” on Saturday night. The 2018 piece, which The Washington Post called “a true opera of our time,” is a commentary on the American dream as experienced by the Zegners, a fictional family of 1860s homesteaders.
“Of course, there will always be a certain joy for me in performing works from the 18th and 19th centuries,” Neary said, “but there is something so exciting about a work written by a young, contemporary voice, with a message that is so timely.”
Chen’s “TWA,” commissioned by MOS and composed in collaboration with its singers, was inspired by the historic folk ballad “The Twa Sisters,” which recounts the tale of a girl drowned by her lovesick, jealous sister.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have such a well-established composer write a work for our singers,” said MOS Director Craig Kier. “This is our form of scholarship. This is our form of research. And this is our way of moving the operatic canon forward.”
Chen signed on librettist Jaqueline Goldfinger to create an episodic work in two acts. The first retells the dramatic tale, while the second looks at the story through the present-day lens of social media and internet trolls.
“I want to make opera something that everyone feels is relevant to their lives now,” said Goldfinger. “Canonical works are great works, and they should be performed. But if we’re making something new for today’s audiences, it should reflect their lives. This is really an opera for all.”
Throughout the process, Chen and Goldfinger met with MOS students, individually and as a group. Chen called the singers “fascinating individuals” and said: “I’m so happy to be working with them.”
For first-year Master of Music student Claire Marguerite Iverson, a soprano who will perform in “TWA” as a sister in the present-day, working with Chen and Goldfinger has been unforgettable.
“As singers, we can be left wondering what composers like Mozart intended, but seeing an actual person as they try and understand how they want to tell a story is amazing,” she said. “We’ve seen it come to life in front of our eyes.”
Article by Jessica Weis ’05 for the University of Maryland’s Maryland Today.