Thursday night I was part of an audience invited to a rehearsal of Berkeley Rep's production of Chinglish by David Henry Hwang. The rehearsal began over an hour late, due to an unspecified technical problem. Mr. Hwang & the director Leigh Silverman spoke to the audience in the lobby during the delay. Mr. Hwang told us how he was inspired to write the play when he visited a new cultural center in China & saw a sign for a handicapped toilet reading "Deformed Man's Toilet." Ms. Silverman described the long search for perfectly bilingual actors for the show.
Tech tables were set up in the auditorium, with production staff seated in front of laptops & video monitors, looking like they were about to land Curiosity. Once the performance started, it was not hard to see why there might be technical problems. The show requires a variety of projections & has a rotating set with interlocking walls & furniture that moves on tracks. Actors sometimes pass through the set while everything is in motion.
The satirical story concerns an American businessman in China. He speaks no Chinese & struggles haplessly with inept translators, an increasingly suspect business consultant, & an affair with the ambitious wife of a Chinese official. Large chunks of dialogue, & even entire scenes, are in Mandarin, with simultaneous translations projected onto the walls of the set. The play often feels like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. In the funniest scenes, the American businessman delivers his presentations through a succession of comically defective translators.
Since this was a rehearsal, the cast might not have been delivering full performances, but I did like Larry Lei Zhang as Minister Cai, an old-school Communist nostalgic for the Cultural Revolution, & Austin Ku as the huffish Bing, who translates the Minister's utterances into inadvertently obscene English.
My theater companions & I rode back to The City on BART with a well-informed Berkeley Rep usher who was eager to discuss the issues of the play & told us that this production eventually travels to Hong Kong. It is currently in previews.
by David Henry Hwang
Leigh Silverman, Director
David Korins, Scenic Design
Vivian Chiu, Zhao
Celeste Den, Miss Qian / Prosecutor Li
Michelle Krusiec, Xi Yan
Austin Ku, Bing / Judge Geming
Alex Moggridge, Daniel Cavanaugh
Brian Nishii, Peter
Larry Lei Zhang, Minister Cai
August 24–october 7, 2012