Ill Communication

4. September, 2012 Theater No comments

As opposed to the similar portmanteau “Spanglish,” which simply refers to speaking a blend of Spanish and English, the word “Chinglish” has a very specific connotation of amusingly garbled English badly translated from Chinese, especially on signs in China reposted mockingly on the internet. To take two examples mentioned in David Henry Hwang’s play Chinglish, now being given its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a disabled-accessible restroom is labeled “deformed man’s toilet” or the dry goods pricing department becomes “fuck the certain price of goods.” If the latter example seems especially incomprehensible, as the American protagonist Daniel explains in the opening monologue, under the simplified writing system imposed by Chairman Mao, the characters for “dry” and “to do” were merged.

Michelle Krusiec and Alex Moggridge in Chinglish. Photo by

Daniel is in fact the head of a family-owned Midwestern signmaking firm trying to drum up business in the minor Chinese city of Guiyang by addressing exactly this problem. Of course, the fact that he speaks no Chinese and doesn’t have any particular grasp of Chinese culture or politics doesn’t seem like the most encouraging sign that he’s the right man for the job. His main qualifications for the government contracts he’s angling for seem to be that his family’s been making signs for a long time, and that he speaks English. That’s why he hires some random British guy who’s been living in China for years to help him navigate the local way of doing business—and to counteract the horribly misleading translations of all the various government-appointed interpreters.

That’s not to say that it’s just a play about mistranslated signs, of course. Hwang, the razor-sharp author of great plays from M. Butterfly to Yellow Face, goes considerably deeper than that, exploring the vastly different cultural assumptions about business, relationships, and communication itself that underlie and undermine the struggle of people from China and the United States to speak the same language. One of the great theatrical explorers of the Asian-American experience now delves into how very different Asian and American experiences can be.

Chinglish debuted at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2011 and went to Broadway later that year. It comes to Berkeley Rep (and then to South Coast Rep in January) in a marvelous staging by Leigh Silverman, who’s helmed the play since the beginning. Silverman previously worked with Hwang on Yellow Face at the Mark Taper Forum and the Public Theater, and in the Bay Area she’s directed Lisa Kron’s In the Wake at the Rep and Well at ACT. Another thing that’s been part of Chinglish from the start is David Korins’s superb set, ever shifting between more than a half-dozen restaurants, meeting rooms, and hotel rooms. What’s more, the set-change choreography is dazzling, with characters striding quickly through a hotel lobby and into an elevator as the walls don’t stop turning from the previous room to the next. (And this wasn’t during a scene change, but a hotel guest in athletic gear boogying into that elevator in the background of one scene nearly steals the show.)  Darron L West’s sound design accompanies the scene changes with loud, propulsive pop music in various genres—rock, hip-hop, etc.—but always in Chinese.

Alex Moggridge makes a winning protagonist as Daniel, just charming enough without seeming too slick, exuding an earnestness that’s both an asset and a disadvantage in trying to navigate the nuances of building business relationships in China. As the play goes on, he also finds that his understanding of marriage and romantic love is also very different from the local variety.

The play is framed tidily (maybe a little too neatly) by a lecture that Daniel’s giving on “business in today’s China,” but the only character given interior soliloquys is Vice Minister Xi Yan. Although the first one comes as a surprise, because it’s so late in the play and her state of mind has been a mystery till then, these monologues are handled elegantly by actor Michelle Krusiec and by shifts in Brian MacDevitt’s lighting. They work in part because, while poetic, they give us a glimpse into what she’s thinking about at the moment rather than taking us entirely out of the action.

Krusiec is a formidable presence as Xi, exuding confidence and impatience with the foolishness of others. From the start, she seems like the toughest nut to crack, forbiddingly unimpressed with Daniel’s pitch, which makes her the most important person he meets in China. She’s also the only one who tries to talk to him without an interpreter, though her English is halting at best and Daniel’s Mandarin is nonexistent, and their Herculean struggle to communicate is grueling in the best way.

Brian Nishii is a little stiff as Peter, an Englishman who’s been living in China a long time, and whom Daniel hires as a consultant to help him build relationships, but the really distracting thing—and in fact the only real false note in the show—is how shaky his British accent is. At least his Mandarin sounds pretty good to my admittedly untrained ear.

Celeste Den, Austin Ku, and Vivian Chiu play the different translators Daniel’s government contacts cycle through, each with a pricelessly idiosyncratic way of getting what he said completely wrong. Den and Ku also have a hilarious scene as two government officials starstruck by figures of international scandal. Original cast member Larry Lei Zhang has an amusing, buffoonish warmth as Xi’s glad-handing boss, Minister Cai, who bonds with Peter over their mutual love of Chinese opera. (When Cai says he loves the traditional arts, Den’s relentlessly belittling translator interprets, “The minister enjoys art that is old and unpopular.”)

At least half of the dialogue is in Mandarin, a language Hwang doesn’t speak (at least not much), which can’t help but raise questions in a show that’s largely about mistranslation. He did work with a translator, Candace Chong, which in any other play would be reassuring. There are always supertitles for the Chinese dialogue skillfully positioned just above the action, and the contrast between what people actually say and how it’s translated is often hilarious, as are some of the things people say precisely because they know Daniel can’t understand.

The cultural contrasts Hwang brings out are keenly observed, from a minor running gag about people taking cell phone calls in the middle of meetings to how all the seemingly rude and belittling comments about the inconsequentiality of Daniel’s Cleveland base of operations turn out to be a selling point in a small inland city that bristles at coastal elites. At the same time, despite all the Chinese dialogue, it’s unmistakably written by an American for an American audience—we’re right there with Daniel as he tries to figure out what the heck people are talking about—so it should be fascinating to discover how the play’s interpreted when the production travels to Hong Kong next March. It’s a smart, sexy, hilarious, and poignant comedy that should translate well in any language, but when so much of it is about untranslatable assumptions ingrained in different cultures, it’s hard to know which parts someone on the other side of that divide will be struck by.

Through October 21
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #79 of 2012, attended August 29.


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