It doesn’t matter how much I talk about The Hundred Flowers Project; there’s no way I can adequately capture the dueling senses of chaos and exquisitely crafted architecture that make up Christopher Chen’s play, which in its own way is as ambitious as the mammoth theatrical project that the characters in it are creating—one that, of course, is also called The Hundred Flowers Project. In fact, the more I talk about it the less I feel I ought to, because so much of its magic lies in the unexpected places it goes in Crowded Fire Theater and Playwrights Foundation’s world premiere production, dazzlingly staged by Desdemona Chiang with a superb cast and exquisitely coordinated technical elements.
Maya Linke’s set is immediately intriguing, with big gray slabs of uncompleted scenery walls all over the sides of the stage, a paint-spattered ladder, a sound board and pulleys everywhere. The actors mill around the stage before the show, talking animatedly but inaudibly to each other and doing stretches, all dressed for activity in Miyuki Bierlein’s casual costumes. Only Cindy Im hangs back, sitting by herself at a distance and nervously teasing a single strand of hair.
After a sudden blackout all the rest of them are sitting in a circle audibly brainstorming the play that they’re collectively creating. Their Hundred Flowers Project is about Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China, but actively melded with the actors’ own experiences in 21st century America. All the collaborators are young Asian Americans; one of them, Wiley Naman Strasser’s Mike, looks totally Caucasian, but we’re told that he’s one quarter Chinese. They all earnestly encourage each other’s ideas, spinning off of them in all kinds of directions. A weird experience with people at a U2 concert recording everything with their smartphones instead of letting themselves actively experience the event they came to see; the distorted way that Facebook lets people publically document their lives on an ongoing basis—sure, throw it all in there.
Charisse Loriaux is the artistic ringleader as Mel, actively guiding the conversation but to solicit ideas and have the collaborators expand on them rather than impose her own. She’s clearly in charge but it’s by making everyone else feel that they’re the ones steering the ship. “Remember to keep sending your ideas to the Google doc,” she tells them, leading to an amusing moment where they all sit in silence thumbing on their smartphones.
Ogie Zulueta’s Sam is especially sharp and engaged, devoted to the process. “All zeitgeists reflect all previous zeitgeists,” he gushes hilariously. Anna Ishida’s Lily comes off as a forceful team player in performance (and slyly seductive later on), but in the brainstorming session she has trouble expressing herself, reduced to garbled parroting of previously expressed ideas when put on the spot. One particularly enthusiastic participant, Aidan (an irrepressible Will Dao) keeps taking things on especially inane tangents, but his ideas are actively nurtured and ideas no matter how out of the blue they seem. The artistic doubletalk during this whole sequence is very funny in itself. “The Cultural Revolution is almost half the play, and we haven’t even started zeitgeist melding it yet,” Mel says.
At first it seems like Im’s character Julie is uncomfortably shy as she watches in silence, but when she talks it’s clear that she’s not shy at all, just markedly not part of the group. She’s there as Mike’s wife, talking with him during breaks. Apparently Lily is Mike’s ex and they made out not long ago, so Julie’s hanging around as part of the couple working through it. The two of them are making an effort to be kind and mindful with each other in a way that seems sincere but also built on a foundation of eggshells. Trying to be devoted to both the group and his wife, Mike brings up an idea that she brought up at home—that they might use a journalist character as a narrative thread to explore the themes of the play. As soon as it’s raised, it makes everyone uncomfortable. Sam in particular reacts strongly against the idea of imposing a narrative structure as anathema to the organic hodgepodge process and aesthetic that they’re trying to cultivate; what they want is a pastiche, not a narrative. Mel clearly agrees, but she acts on that only by soliciting the opinions of the others, maintaining an air of objectivity. The more steadfastly she insists that everyone’s creating the show equally, the more her hand in it begins to show.
But it’s also clear that there’s a lot more going on than that. The private conversations during breaks show the cracks within the group, as some complain about Mel’s “pretense of collaboration” and others about how weird and uncomfortable it is that Julie’s here. In two separate conversations across the room from each other, both Sam and Lily have short expository monologues about the backstory between Mike and Julie and his slipup with Lily. “Thanks for the historical narrative,” their respective conversational partners say jokingly, and Sam and Lily are taken aback by their own exposition. “Why was I compelled to say that?” they say.
You see, there’s another character in the play, one that becomes more and more prominent as the play goes on: the character of the play itself. From time to time the lights dim suddenly and there’s a loud sonic thump that sends everyone reeling as if they’ve been pummeled by an unseen force. At first that just seems to signify an unusually dramatic scene change, but it’s increasingly clear that these transitions take a toll. The players are shaken by them, disoriented or even reset by them, losing track of what they were doing or even of who they are. This is the play asserting itself, moving things along and firmly changing the course when it starts to stray somewhere it doesn’t like.
At first the glimpses of the play within a play that we get are intriguingly innovative but also amusingly ramshackle, occasionally interrupted by some of the notes-to-self in the Google doc of the script, or by elements introduced in the brainstorming that stick out like a sore thumb. Mike plays Mao while standing on a ladder, his face projected on the jagged uncompleted walls—or, in a striking effect, onto a sheet that’s been hooded over someone else’s face. (The increasingly omnipresent projections are artfully created by Wesley Cabral.) “The reactionaries must be purged so that we can continue our experiment,” Mike’s Mao announces. The style is stagily declamatory, with a lot of marching and drumming on paint buckets, but it’s also oddly compelling in itself.
The mood of the play quickly darkens as soon as its premise is challenged. Mike and Julie start to fight about their relationship and his divided loyalties, he gently but hamhandedly trying to suggest that she takes things too seriously and she getting the sinking feeling that she’s not taking things seriously enough. It’s clearly very, very hard on them both, and you can’t help but feel for them, though it’s harder to sympathize with wavering Mike than steadfast Julie. Fractious conversations in other rooms are seen projected as if in security footage, increasing the feeling of paranoia. Heather Barasab’s intense, shifting lights and Brendan Aanes’s ominous sounds amp up this feeling that something’s just not right.
By the second act the play has become tremendously successful, touring for years and feeding on itself, constantly shifting until by now it’s not about Mao anymore at all, but about reflecting the experience of the audience back on itself. We’re shown a testimonial of a woman in Iowa about how great the show was when it came to her town (“It was catharsis and safety,” she attests inanely), and we soon learn that that video testimonial was part of the show itself. It’s now a living commentary on and glorification of itself.
The second act is a stunner. The play has taken over entirely by this point, five years after the first act, and its theatrical origins are whispered of as if they’re ancient legends. Im’s Julie is our guide as a reporter character, much like the one she proposed, who tries to make sense of what’s going on around and inside her, narrating her experience into her handheld recorder. Mel shows up now entirely as an onscreen presence, guiding things remotely like a soothing-voiced Great and Powerful Oz, announcing that “something is congealing” in the creative process that they need to explore. “Should I archive?” Sam asks deferentially. “Yeah, if you feel it,” she says, but her casual tone doesn’t make it any less of a command.
Everyone is much transformed, some in a happily amnesiac daze, others scurrying and fearful. Poetic shards of dialogue are repeated over and over as if more than a mantra—a lifeline, even. The spirit of Mao lives on in the “continuous revolution” of the play, which must purge any counterrevolutionary elements within itself. It becomes more hysterical as it goes on, in both senses of the word. The running commentary on the play is brilliant, especially as a winking nod to the play that we’re actually watching. “Where is the play going? No end in sight!” Lily cries. As the fictional Hundred Flowers Project gets more and more invested in its dangerously inflated epic scope, it has the funny effect of making the real Hundred Flowers Project, the one Chen wrote, seem more and more of a grand, epic accomplishment in itself. It’s a technically dazzling play, even an important one, that’s all the more impressive because it doesn’t take itself too seriously—Chen fascinates us with its tangled metatheatrical narrative and then wins us over entirely by poking fun at it. Anyone who doesn’t rush out to join this revolution is automatically suspect.
Show #102 of 2012, attended October 29.