CHINGLISH 中式英语 TAKES A SMART VIEW OF PEOPLE WHO GET LOST IN TRANSLATION
DAVID HENRY HWANG BRINGS THIS COMEDY THE PERFECT MIXED MESSAGES. CELEBRATE AAPI HERITAGE MONTH WITH THE CAST OF 中式英语
Review By Vince Mediaa
A simple sign on the lawn outside a Chinese business park “Don’t walk on the Lawn” translated means “How can you put your step on the Green Grass” or “Beware of Missing Foot”. Tony award winning David Henry Hwang takes on the classic humor of English and Chinese translation, that can be an impossible task. The San Francisco Playhouse continues their current season with a convincing production of CHINGLISH, now on their Kensington Park Hotel stage through June 10th. More than 200 languages are spoken in and around China. If an American tries to make a sale there, understanding at least one of the languages can help them avoid an ocean of misunderstandings.
SFPH Artistic Director Bill English says “Mr Hwang points out, the language differences we laugh about in CHINGLISH are only the tip of the iceberg that has frozen our two cultures from Chinato alienation. Our government wants to outlaw Tik Tok, prevent China from acquiring technologies that would advance their growth and try to limit the advance of Chinese culture”. The two hour play is directed by local favorite Jeffrey Lo who brings this very funny fast moving CHINGLISH to the SFPH with a bright bilingual cast. This company is wonderful, and this play helps to celebrate Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
This is Hwang's best work since M. Butterfly. He mixes this story with Chinese and English interpretations that are hilarious and make for a brilliant business tale. The sign posted over a city park reads “Temporary Park only for getting off”. CLINGLISH is the story about a blundering American businessman who lands into a language war as he tries to do business in China as an American sign magnate. The story gets much of its humor, and clever drama, from the confusion that arises for a naive Cleveland sign-company owner Daniel played by the capable Michael Barrett Austin who fails to do either.
Behind this well written mash-up of Chinese and American vulnerability, this comedy takes a smart view of people who get lost in language. The play is framed by an opening and closing monologue from Daniel talking to the Commerce League, pointing out some silly signage of Chinese and English signs that show how mangled and funny they are. The story then flashbacks three years earlier as Cavanaugh first meets to pitch his Chinese-to-English sign company. Austin is keen in this part and brings his confusion of the Chinese verbiage in his body language and performance on stage.
Daniel relies on his British interpreter Peter, played by the outstanding Matthew Bohrer who has been in China for over 20 years and speaks broken Chinese. Yet the meetings they encounter with Chinese business officials still fails with lost translations that make these scenes some of the funniest to listen to. The provincial vice minister Xi Yan played by the flawless Nicole Tung is the perfect example of the clueless language barrier the story explores. One of the humorous scenes involve supertitles which float on the set, cunningly bagging the comedic transitions including the smallest of simple errors. Some “CHINGLISH” translations: The American message “Keep off the grass” is communicated as “I like your smile but unlike you put your shoes on my face”; and “Handicapped Restroom” is in place of “Deformed Man’s Toilet.”
Daniel stumbles into an affair with her that is as entertaining as the misinterpretations of their sexplay becomes a comedy of sexual misfires. Minister Cai, played by the effective Alex Hsu who is in the mix attempting to hold off the transaction and makes a government tie to the story. He assures the local cultural minister that his products will not be awkward or misleading “CHINGLISH ” signs seen in urban China. Americans may laugh at such mangled postings as “Wash After Release” posted in a women’s restroom. Very funny but the Chinese find such snafus humiliating. Both Hsu and Tung play their roles speaking mandarin and it is a beautiful language.
Lo’s direction is fast paced and the timing of the mis translated dialog is perfect. The splendid Phil Wong plays Judge Xu Geming, and scores a pitch from Daniels sales when he learns that he is part of the Eron scandal. His sidekick interpreter Zhao is played my entertaining Xun Zhang who brings his perfect mandarin timing to reinterpret English as silly as English can be. The superb Sharon Shao and Nicole Tung, fill out the rest of the roles in this talented cast. Projection designer Spense Matubang created constant subtitles that project off Andrea Bechert’s set panels. On the downside some audience members could not see some of the projections. The stream lined lighting design by Wen Ling Liao plays an important role with the subtitles sight lines I am sure have improved since opening night. Becherts set design includes a sleek bouncy hotel bed that brings erotic moments to the art of English versus Chinese. Dialect coach and Cultural Consultant Patrick Chew; skillfully dovetails the action in both English and Chinese (approximately 35% of the dialogue is in Mandarin); while the characters may not comprehend each other, the audience easily follows the balanced mayhem.
Director Lo staged this show to move fast and their timing is perfect as the story moves in and out of offices, conference rooms, restaurants, and the perfect bedroom. The Costumes by Becky Bodurth are very modern sleek and the women in perfect asian similar to the look I first saw at the Berkeley Rep in 2011. Questions of cultural identity when East meets West are a theme in many of Hwang's plays, from “M. Butterfly”, “Yellow Face” and his many works. They become timely in global conflicts where old adversaries attempt to become new allies. Some have called David Henry Hwang the Asian Woody Allen, and in this mosh pit of language and pillow talk, I agree. I found each confrontation with the East and West colliding, but this is all entertaining and funnier in the brash dialect of CLINGLISH. I recommend this spring comedy and as always the San Francisco Playhouse has a polished entertaining production. SFPH's next production is A CHORUS LINE that opens June 22nd. But in the meantime spend some time in Gulyang, China and bring your own translator.
SAN FRANCISCO PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS
By David Henry Hwang Directed by Jeffrey Lo
Closes – June 10, 2023
SAN FRANCISCO PLAYHOUSE
San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street
Run time: 2 hours plus one 10-minute intermission
Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli
Michael Barrett Austin. Matthew Bohrer, Alex Hsu, Sharon Shao, Nicole Tung, Phil Wong, and Xun Zhang