Review: S.F. Playhouse’s ‘Chinglish,’ Directed by Jeffrey Lo, is plump to bursting with jokes about what gets lost in translation

Vice minister Xi Yan (Nicole Tung, left) and American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) discuss a deal in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

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.

Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong, left), translator Zhao (Xun Zhang), prosecutor Li (Sharon Shao), American sign maker Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) and vice minister of culture Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) attempt to communicate in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

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).

Translator Zhao (Xun Zhang, left), prosecutor Li (Sharon Shao), American sign maker Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) and Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong) take a selfie in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

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?

American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin, left) shares a moment with vice minister Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

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.

Article by Lily Janiak for the SF Chronicle.

Review: LIKE HEAVEN at The Bridge Initiative, written by Elaine Romero

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.

Playwright Elaine Romero

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.

The Bridge Initiative ~ ~ Tickets available at

Venue: Estrella Mountain Community College Fine Arts Center, 3000 North Dysart Road, Avondale, AZ

Photo credit to Rick Meinecke: L to R ~ Andrews, Maclean, Foley, Royall

The production runs through May 13th at Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale, AZ.

Review by Herbert Paine for BroadwayWorld.

When the Process Is the Problem

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.

Playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen.

“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.

‘Opera for All’ Maryland Opera Studio to Perform Contemporary Works in Weekend Dedicated to Female Composers ‘Opera for All’

illustration of woman in water
The best-known opera composers tend to have one thing in common: They’re men. This weekend, the Maryland Opera Studio presents new works by New York-based female composers Justine F. Chen and Missy Mazzoli.
“TWA” graphic by Eric Wheatley

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.

Review: Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s FLOOD at KC Rep

KCRep long-awaited debut at Copaken runs through February 19th.

Darren (Matt DeCaro) and Edith (Laura T. Fisher)

Friday night saw the debut at the Copaken theatre of Mashuq Mushtaq Deen‘s Flood, an absurdist tragicomedy making its first appearance on stage courtesy of the KC Rep. This reviewer has always been a fan of absurdist theatre, so it was with considerable excitement that she attended the evening’s performance, eager to see a premiere that has come a mere 3 years after its workshop reading in 2019 (thanks again, covid). Happily, this reviewer can safely say she was not disappointed.

Playwright, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen

Flood takes place in a cozy, midcentury modern apartment on the 19th floor where Darren (Matt DeCaro) and Edith (Laura T. Fisher) live in quiet retirement, a pair of boomer empty-nesters marking time. The names, by the way, are no coincidence: the relentlessly cheery domestic sitcoms of the 50’s and 60’s are an ongoing motif in the play. It is very much the world that the couple has created for themselves: clean, domestic, and isolated from the not-so-niceties of the outside.

During the play, Darren (wearing what one might call his “Father Knows Best” mask) labors away at his “great work”, a baffling construction of toothpicks and glue. Edith, ever the pleasant and patient hausfrau, hovers by his side, waiting for the moment that the work is done, when at last they shall have tea, enjoy their Very Nice View, and all questions will be answered. So far, so Beckett. But the story really takes an extra dimension when the pair’s grown children, Darren Jr. and Edith Jr. (Darrington Clark and Jamie Morrow, respectively) enter the picture. The two children, having moved down to the lower floors of the same building with families of their own, try desperately to raise the alarm: the building is flooding, the water is rising, and they are scared for themselves and their families.

Their protestations are less than successful: the elders, having grown up in a world where such things Do Not Happen, are unable to comprehend what they are being told. Darren Sr., in particular, refuses even to speak directly to them, too wrapped up in his “magnum opus”. But as the waters rise, and the view outside becomes less and less familiar, even they have to eventually reckon with the world.

The production is a clever one, very well staged in a way that lets the world gradually intrude itself into the main characters’ lives. The view outside the windows slowly transitions until there is nothing but blue, blue, blue. The books of unanswerable questions (which Edith has been carefully writing down for the glorious day when the work is done) grow and accumulate around the couple until it seems a wave is about to come crashing down on them. Mr. Deen’s script is witty and skillful, taking us step by step through the story and keeping a good balance of humor and tension. There were no weak spots in the cast, though special mention must be made of Ms. Fisher who ably carries the great bulk of the play.

Overall, Flood is a splendid work, a truly contemporary take on absurdist theatre written with sharp and fresh relevance. It is first and foremost a story of generations: of the ones that were raised in one world and imparted the values of that world to a generation that finds itself in a very different one. Those of the protagonists’ generation will recognize the bafflement of finding themselves in a time where the old rules seemingly no longer apply. To the younger viewers, the frustration of the children trying to make their progenitors understand will no doubt ring all too familiar. And to the very pleasant older lady in the elevator on the way out who loudly asked if anyone could tell her “what all that was about”, the answer, dear lady, is that it is about time that you looked out the goddamn window.

Tickets available HERE at KC Rep, performances through Feb. 19, 2023

Review by Kelly Luck for Broadway World