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Theater Review: Chinglish

David Henry Hwang's play picks up where M. Butterfly left off



June is David Henry Hwang appreciation month in Chicago. The City Council hasn't issued an official declaration that I've seen, but the fact that Hwang has two shows opening within eight days of each other has been parlayed into an unofficial festival by the participating companies. It's a neat bit of marketing, and the press has picked up on it with the sort of enthusiasm that would normally make me shake my head and mutter. But the Silk Road Theatre Project's version of Yellow Face turned out to be fascinating when it opened on June 18, and now Goodman Theatre's staging of a great new Hwang comedy, Chinglish, confirms that he really does deserve a festival to call his own.

Back in 1988, M. Butterfly announced not only Hwang's talent but his fascination with questions of perception and identity, especially as they apply to interactions between Westerners and Asians. His based-on-fact tale of a French diplomat, Gallimard—who carries on a long-term, sexually intimate affair with a Chinese opera performer, never guessing that the lover he calls "Butterfly" is in fact a man who specializes in female roles—offered a great way to explore the Occidental male's penchant for demeaning the Other (basically, foreigners and women) even as he romanticizes them.

What made M. Butterfly more than a smutty satire on round-eye myopia was Hwang's insistence on humanizing that Other. At once an outsider in Chinese society and a vessel for its traditional arts, the opera artist, Song Liling, is bullied into spying for the Maoists, who consider him a degenerate. His predicament enriches the narrative, multiplies its funhouse-mirror illusions—and, crucially, emphasizes that when the West gazes out at the world there are real people with real lives, fears, and agendas of their own gazing back.

In a way, Chinglish can be considered an M. Butterfly for the new global order.

The Gallimard this time around is a 40-something American businessman, Dan Cavanaugh, who runs a family firm called Ohio Signage. The time is now, the U.S. is in deep economic shit, and Dan has come to Guiyang—a "smaller" Chinese city of only four million souls—to get in on the Asian tiger boom. Attempting to buy itself some international cachet, the local government is using a German architect to design a "world-class" arts center featuring Brazilian wood, Italian marble, and a Japanese sound system. Cavanaugh is looking to pick up the signage contract, his pitch being that he'll prevent embarrassing translation errors like those at Shanghai's Pudong Grand Theatre, where "handicapped restrooms" became "deformed man's toilet."

Dan's complete ignorance of Chinese doesn't seem to faze anybody. Much more than linguistic skills, he needs guanxi—a word whose meaning is struggled over mightily, both in the play and in the program, but which any Chicagoan would understand as "clout." Dan's first, uh, Chinaman is Peter, a sinophile Australian who's got a favor he can call in. Before long, though, Dan finds himself literally and figuratively in bed with a savvy, attractive, discontented bureaucrat named Xu Yan.

Though hardly the fool that Gallimard was, Dan isn't above imposing his fantasies on Xu Yan. Times have changed, however. He can't play the great white father from the rich and powerful West. In fact, given China's new status in the world, he's pretty much the bitch in the relationship—and Hwang gives him some traditionally feminine things to feel, say, and do. Meanwhile, Xu Yan is taken by what she sees as his sweet American innocence.

The dynamic has come round full circle. He's her Butterfly every bit as much as she's his. I suppose that's progress of a sort.

The reversal of fortunes gives Chinglish considerable dynamism as well as loads of comic opportunities, each of which is punctually realized in Leigh Silverman's exceedingly sharp production. There's plenty of laughs, also, in the continual negotiation of meaning between people who haven't mastered each other's languages. Hwang and Silverman milk that partly by using supertitles to get at the intrigues and misconceptions among Dan's Chinese hosts.

The really marvelous thing about this play, though, is Hwang's plotting. As in M. Butterfly—and Yellow Face—the conceit here is elegantly of a piece, yet Hwang is able to keep turning it in on itself to reveal new ambiguities, absurdities, subversions, and paradoxes. Like Jennifer Lim's Xu Yan, James Waterston's Dan, Stephen Pucci's Peter, and David Korins's big toy of a set composed of two rotating triangles, it's a brilliant performance. 

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