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Thursday, September 06, 2012

Review: Chinglish

Top level summary: Go see it now. You only have until October 21st!

Chinglish is David Henry Hwang's play about misunderstandings due to translations between Chinese and English. Those misunderstandings happen with multiple language pairs, including Japanese and even German, but David Henry Hwang also wrote M. Butterfly, a Tony winning play (and a movie worth watching) that's nothing at all like Madame Butterfly. So when he writes something it's well worth watching.

The play is currently running at the Berkeley Rep, and your experience starts when you enter the door of the theater, where they've cleverly introduced bilingual Chinese-English signs, with deliberate literal translations to get you into the mood. Well done! Despite the rave reviews about the plays, I was very concerned that all the reviews came from white people, who might not actually know enough Mandarin to know whether the Chinese in the play are portrayed correctly.

I needn't have worried. The play is funny, right from the start, even including a presentation about the use of simplified Chinese versus traditional Chinese, leading to an understanding of the etymology of confusion in translation today. This is great stuff, and you literally could not make this up. The plot revolves around an Ohio businessman who goes to China trying to sell signs as part of a city contract. He engages a Business Consultant (a foreigner with decent Mandarin skills), starts talking to the consultant's connections, and hilarity ensues.

If that was all that went on to the play, you'd get your money's worth from the laughs alone. But David Henry Hwang tries to do a lot more with the play, and impressively succeeds! The business plot is great, and at one point, one of the main characters has a dialog that makes no sense, but by the end of the play when the reveal happens, everything the character says makes sense in retrospect, which is an impressive achievement. There's a philosophical musing about the different expectations Western people and Chinese people bring to marriage, and (at least according to my wife) the play displays a subtle but thorough understanding of politics, business, and corruption in today's China. I will note that M. Butterfly is not allowed to play in China, and my wife thinks that no Chinese director will touch Chinglish with a 100 foot pole. (It will play in Hong Kong in March, however) If you've been reading the news about Bo Xilai, keep in mind that this play was written and produced before that story hit the headlines!

As far as the Berkeley Rep's presentation is concerned, the actors are all good, with the exception of Michelle Krusiec, who has an inconsistent Mandarin enunciation. Sometimes, she pronounces perfect Mandarin, and other times, she betrays an accent that sounds like an American who learnt Mandarin incorrectly in college. It's just wrong often enough to be distracting and jarring in an otherwise excellent presentation.

One of the most subtle thing about the humor in the play is that the use of super-titles actually helps the humor even for those of us who know both Mandarin and English. This is because in common use of Mandarin, we try to make sense of the way foreigners pronounce Mandarin, and therefore sometimes miss the funny connotations behind the mistranslations. The only improvement I would want to make would be to add translations to Chinese for the English dialogue, which would mean that I could take my parents to this play and they would enjoy it.

In any case, the play is perfect for those Chinese people with non-Chinese SOs, or anyone who speaks both Mandarin and English. Pure English-speakers would thoroughly enjoy this as well. If you only speak Chinese, well, chances are you're not reading this review.

Highly recommended. Well worth the drive to Berkeley. And while you're there, visit Fentons Creamery

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