China: The Whole Enchilada

As paper-thin and disposable as a one-sentence fortune and about as filling as the cookie it came in, Mark Brown and Paul Mirkovitch’s musical pseudo-homage to China is getting a silly, sporadically successful production at DCAC in Adams Morgan, thanks to the eager and disheveled efforts of Landless Artistic Director Andrew Lloyd Baughman, his brother Matt Baughman, and relative newcomer Ben Demers.

The three actors thoroughly chop up the busy job of relating a short, twisted history of China within the span of 90 minutes, in what becomes a revolving door of scene sketches involving constant costume, wig, and hat changes. It would all be pretty good farce if there were any plot at all. Instead, the actors bicker about semantics and sequence, and offer unsolicited acting advice to each other mid-scene. Fortunately, it’s all on purpose, and often the humor works. The play, which had its aggressively kooky premiere at the New York Fringe festival in 2008, fully intends to be a bad play. Or, more accurately, a bad attempt at a bad play, nothing more noble than the artless, slapdash sum of its cheap jokes (these would be mostly puns) and disposable parts.

(l-r) Matthew Baughman, Andrew Lloyd Baughman and Ben Demers (Photo: Amanda William Photography)

But in the face of such a dyspeptic swirl of vaudeville schtick — featuring songs with titles like “Evil Is a Yellow Face” — it’s important to remember that shows must be judged on the degree to which they achieve what they set out to do. And, ideally, whether they have any chance of reaching a measurable audience. Mercifully, Landless is under no impression that the show’s rudimentary series of songs and pretend-history lessons amount to more than some rude, winking tomfoolery. Brown and Mirkovitch go to great lengths to ensure that the three white male performers come off as self-aware anti-experts, charming in their desire to make you laugh but, at the end of the day, just asinine fools with a trunk full of bad theatre ideas.

It’s fun stuff, and though the show deflates to dangerously low levels at moments — the internal arguing between straight-man Demers and the bombastic Baughmans serves some structural purpose but, as comedy, is dead in the water — the trio manage to keep it all afloat. The foot-binding ballad “Lotus Shoes” and, toward the end, a kinda-catchy song about Tiananmen Square are particular high points. Demers grabs a Baughman to play his dummy for an unexpected bit of ventriloquism, in which the latter gets to show off his Fozzy Bear impression. And the ongoing, frantically competitive back-and-forth keeps the engine running underneath the whole big dumb thing, although even with an intermission the show barely manages to convincingly cover an hour and a half.

The gang doesn’t always manage to sell their self-professed idiocy as actual entertainment, and a sizeable handful of moments just don’t work. “Peking Man,” one of China’s earliest inhabitants, turns out to be a better idea for a song than, well… an actual song. The Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century is reenacted, not surprisingly, with boxers, and some bad accents from the Rocky movies. The bizarre, ongoing conflation with Latin America (oh, did the title of the show tip you off?) is pretty funny, but not more than half a dozen times, and I’m rounding up to be nice. But hey, that’s the script. And even though it’s mostly a graveyard of bad puns, it’s actually not a terrible piece of comic writing, mostly bad in what can only be described as the right ways.

So how to perform and sell those parts that turn out to be bad in the bad ways? In ninety-nine shows out of a hundred, it’s in the acting. But in China: The Whole Enchilada, the jokes are so corny that it would take a corny joke about corn to describe how corny they are. Which means, it’s probably best that the actors keep plowing through blindly. The worst thing is to wait for laughs that don’t come, so the show actually seems to work best when the endless gags and non sequiters come just a little too fast for us to follow. Mild doses of ad libbing from Demers and the Baughmans do a welcome job of keeping things fresh too. And, despite all good sense, the audience laughs.

The show’s point of satire is a moving target. Some of the poking fun at China is about actual Chinese custom. An even larger amount of teasing goes into how clueless the Western world is about China. Who’s meant to feel the barbed end of the the stick? I doubt it’s the Chinese. Can’t say it’s anyone, really. The show throws it arms so wide and lobs its jokes so nonchalantly that it seems hard for any particular population to take offense. Except, perhaps, any lost souls who wandered over to DCAC looking for a primer on Latin American cuisine.

[Ben Demers makes his acting debut on this site, where he otherwise appears as a reviewer. This has not affected the objectivity of the review.]

Landless Theatre’s production of China: The Whole Enchilada runs thru Apr 24, 2011 at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW Washington, DC.
Details here
Buy tickets.

China: The Whole Enchilada

written by Mark Brown, with additional music and arrangements by Paul Mirkovitch
Directed by John Sadowsky
Produced by Landless Theatre Co.
Reviewed by Hunter Styles

Recommended
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with an intermission

Other reviews:

 

Comments

  1. Offended and unamused nonhyphenated Asian American says:

    First, I would suggest that DC Arts Center not rent their space to the Landless “Theater” Company, given their poor judgment and utter lack of cultural sensitivity.

    Second, I would ask DC Arts Center to forward this message to Landless “Theater” Company management and “actors” involved in the current production.
    Having seen and enjoyed a previous Landless Theater production, I was actually looking forward to tonight’s show and had invited friends.

    Now I wish I had seen it sooner so that I could have told all of DC to please boycott this crass and offensive “work.”
    Wouldn’t there be a public uproar if this had been about “African Americans” and had started with “Sam Malone” in black face and used the “n word”?
    I was beyond disappointed and shocked by this “musical’s” unabashed racism and condescension, not only to Chinese/Asians (in the US and around the world) but also to the exploitation of the mostly white audience’s ignorance and cultural illiteracy.

    While making fun of immigrants speaking English as a second language, the “actors” were themselves unable to correctly pronounce any Chinese words, and the slideshow repeatedly projected multiple profanities (e.g., f***) in Chinese, which most of the ignorant/racist audience could not read.  So many offensive/ignorant stereotypes and blatantaly racist jokes were not rebuked by intermission, and this production was not worth even one more minute to see it to its pathetic conclusion.
    In addition to a full refund of the cost of my ticket, parking, and time, I would like to
    (a) meet in person with Landless Theater management and “actors” to understand their choice of this horribly offensive play; and, more importantly,

    (b) ask Landless “Theater” Company to send this “script” to national Asian American advocacy/media organizations and post online for public comment.
    (c) ask Landless “Theater” Company to donate ALL ticket sales from this racist/exploitative show to local organizations that actually try to help immigrants and/or fight hate crimes — all of the money is tainted by the most egregious levels of white privilege and ignorance.

    Thank you.

  2. Non Asian American of Caucasian Decent says:

    Don’t let the overly sensitive,non humored, and ill tempored commentor above spook you. This was a great show. There were a number of Asians in the group I went with, and they all were in stitches, particularly at the mandorin profanity everyone else was oblivious to (which, if the above commentor had stayed to the end, they credited to Wkipedia’s article on Mandorin Profanity, so it was all intentional).

    It was great fun, and would see it again if it was still playing!

  3. Dear Offended – We gather that you were the “audience member” who flicked off the “actors” during the final show and slammed your belongings on the ground in disgust. First of all, we at LTC are truly sorry that you were offended by the play – but allow us to remind you that “Art” is not simply intended for your “amusement,” but also to encourage audiences to “think.” The play was written by a caucasian American who adopted a child from China, and his play is an attempt to grapple with the many stereotypes and culture-clashes that he and his daughter will probably face for their entire lives. We wish you had stayed through the entire production to better understand “the point.”

    We also remind you that “actors” are just that – the characters they portray do not reflect the opinions of the actors themselves or the management of Landless Theatre Company (in fact, two of the Landless production characters are the fictional children of Michelle Bachmann – how culturally sensitive did you expect them to be?). You would do better to address your questions to the playwright, or to the New York International Fringe Festival that awarded this play their 2008 Outstanding Musical Award.

    From another perspective, it is quite impressive to have inspired an audience member to write such an enraged response – perhaps Landless will bring about an end to “Ignorance” and “Racism” in America, after all. The Post reviewer simply dismissed the show as “not funny,” but she never questioned why it wasn’t funny, or considered the fact that it wasn’t always intended to be funny.

    We hope you will return in the future (not to THE B TEAM, which closes our “Season of Horrible Taste,” because you will no doubt find that production offensive). Rest assured that next season we will return to our usual fare of zombies and other pop-culture fluff.  

    Best,
    LTC

  4. Boycott racist "theater" and Landless "Theater" Company says:

    First, I actually seek out and enjoy edgy/satirical theater at independent/community venues, including NYC’s fringe festival.  Second, I had previously enjoyed another Landless “Theater” Company production and was looking forward to enjoying this “musical.”  This was by far the most offensive “musical” I’ve ever seen, and this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to leave in protest.
    Yes, I subsequently read (and am incredulous) that the “playwright” had written this “musical” as a tributed to his adopted Chinese daughter.  How will she react when she learns of her “father”‘s judgmental, holier-than-thou denigration of her birthplace’s rich history and language?  What will he say to her when she learns that his “musical” was packed with every second-grade “joke” that she’ll encounter (and, perhaps, already has)?  Americans should not adopt children from countries whose histories/cultures they blatantly disrespect.
    Like all actors/companies, Landless “Theater” Company and management had free will to choose their productions/roles — many actors/companies actually strive to do this with integrity.  By choosing/performing in this “musical,” Landless “Theater” Company implicitly endorses the views of the playwright and his characters.
    Have any of Landless “Theater” Company manaqgement and/or “actors” ever had their homes vandalized solely because of their race/ethnicity, or had racial slurs/epithets hurled at their parents while walking down the street?
    Asian Americans who found this amusing have internalized the fact that racist humor remains socially acceptable, particularly when the targeted groups are unlikely to protest.  The Chinese woman next to me was similarly unamused and voiced her displeasure throughout.
    Landless “Theater” Company has clearly refused to assume any responsibility, or even apologize, for its extremely poor judgment.  Landless “Theater” Company has refused to meet to discuss/understand why their chosen “musical” was enormously problematic.  Landless “Theater” Company has refused to send the “script” to Asian American media/advocacy organizations for comment.  Landless “Theater” Company has refused to donate any of its tainted profits to groups that actually endeavor to combat racism and hate in this country.
    Rest assured that I have no intention to see another Landless “Theater” Company and would urge other potential patrons to do the same.
     

  5. Tim TreanorSlammo the Whale says:

    It seems like the guy with all the quote marks missed the point. The show I saw lampooned ignorant Western beliefs and attitudes about Chinese culture, not Chinese culture itself. The characters played by the Baughman brothers were buffoons who made cartoonish assumptions about China, based on Hollywood-manufactured misinformation. It wasn’t a subtle point, and to make it more obvious the third character kept expressing his dismay and disgust. How the last writer could have gotten an attack on the Chinese culture out of this I can’t imagine.
    The business about the Chinese-language obscenities on the picture that had the Great Wall in the background while Andrew Baughman’s character grinned in the foreground was also a slam against ignorant Westerners. If you say “FU” to me and I stand there grinning like an idiot because I’m too ignorant to understand what you’re saying, the joke’s on me, not you.
    Of course, the show also had some criticism of the way that the Chinese culture valued women. But that was done in a serious manner, and the point seemed legitimate.
     

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