“Chinglish.” The word suggests an infusion of two languages, a patois of Chinese and English, the back and forth talk by persons not fully conversant in the others’ language. It can cause confusion and, in David Henry Hwang’s ideal play Chinglish, lead to copious comedy and more than a bit of heart-tugging emotion. It is a great word and a great title.
Ambitious American businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh (earnest, likeable Chris Mahle), ventures to Guiyang, the relatively modest capital of Guizhou province in the Chinese hinterlands, to drum up business for his Cleveland-based sign-making company. He engages Peter Timms (Michael T. McClune, a fluent speaker of Mandarin impressive in his debut stage appearance), as his vital business consultant. For Cavanaugh, doing business as a foreigner in China is tricky and fraught with dreadful pits of misunderstanding and local politics, all made the worse for his lack of linguistic ability. The man at the center of the potential deal, Minister Cai Guoliang (the excellent Jeffrey Sun), has more than a little to hide, masking a conflicted situation with a pleasant demeanor.
The problems are many. Translators mangle the negotiations through ignorance or on purpose. Backroom deals and machinations that abound in China, as indeed they do in America, threaten to squelch the deal. A romance that springs up between Cavanaugh and Assistant Director Xi Yan (splendid, sensual Joyce F. Liu) confounds the issues as well as consultant Timms’ questionable background.
The protean supporting cast taking on multiple roles (Dianna Hua Chung, Isabel Anne To and Phil Wong) is delightful. Miss Chung is particularly fine in her first scene as an aggressively inept translator. In that scene and in others, she gets well-earned laughter with perfectly timed facial expressions.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of half of the dialogue is in Chinese, which appears in super-title translation projected above the stage just like at the opera. The translations are often so comically fractured that the audience is kept giddy with laughter.
Lily Tung Crystal’s direction is astute and Kuo-Hao Lo’s handsome, rotating scenic design, lit by Nick Kumamoto, helps maintain a crisp pace of action by minimizing shift time. Costumes by Y. Sharon Peng amply support character and situation and the sound design by Jeff Grafton with its cross section of Chinese musical styles is fine.
Chinglish, which closes out this amazing company’s eighty-fourth season, runs through June 28 at the Lucie Stern Theatre. I don’t think it is easy to assemble a cast like this or to mount such a play. See it while you can.
Note: For their eighty-fifth season, the ambitious Palo Alto Players have announced a season of some of the very best Tony Award winners. On the bill – Chicago, Clybourne Park, Death of a Salesman, Into the Woods and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Paul Myrvold has been an Equity actor for over forty years, performing on Broadway, off Broadway, off-off Broadway, in regional theatres, summer stock and as a guest artist at colleges and universities from coast to coast. He has appeared many times in Bay Area theatres and in 2008 was given a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for “Outstanding Performance” in supporting roles in the musical Grey Gardens at TheatreWorks (2008). He trained at ACT and holds a BA and MA in Theatre Arts from San Jose Stage University. Mr. Myrvold has been writing theatre commentary in the Bay Area for over twenty-five years, first with the Gilroy Dispatch and for the last fifteen years as Arts and Entertainment Editor for Out & About Magazine.