Chimerica has been something of a sensation in London since premiering in 2013, but until now, has never been performed in America. That all changes this week when Studio Theatre stages the show under the direction of David Muse.
Written by British dramatist Lucy Kirkwood, Chimerica tracks two decades of U.S.-China relations alongside lives forever changed by the crosswinds of politics and history.
“It’s one of those plays that takes on geopolitics or politics in general, in a way that feels complex and sophisticated and interesting enough that it passes muster for a D.C. audience,” Muse says. “I always find that a bit of a rare thing.”
The director admits that he tends to be cautious about helming a political play, citing the watchful eye that comes from the theater being in Washington and also the fact that Studio tends to be more about the “human” story. But he wasn’t worried about Chimerica not appealing to Studio’s audience.
“This play has really interesting things to say about the United States and China and the vast political trends and ultimately it’s more a human story than it is about society and politics,” he says. “That attracted me to it.”
Muse describes the departure point of the play as a famous photograph of “the tank man.” In 1989 a young American journalist photographs a protester facing down four tanks in Tiananmen Square and 23 years later, he decides to seek out the subject of his most famous image.
“It was very interesting to me,” Muse continues. “This is a large cast, technically ambitious, 50-scene play and I knew it would call for a lot of multi-media—videos, images, photographs. I’ve been really inspired by a lot of projection design in the last several years but haven’t worked with it a lot, so that was a personal challenge I was interested in.”
Muse was also drawn to the dialogue of the play, calling Kirkwood “a skillful writer of dialogue, who can tell a great story.” He was able to talk with the playwright leading up to rehearsals to get her advice on a couple of things and the two have done some little back-and-forth tinkering on the play.
“It’s only been in the U.K., and there are a couple of things that wound up in the production that sound kind of British coming out of an American mouth,” Muse says. “An interesting thing about the play is it has a British writer but only one of the 25 characters in the play is British. So, she’s writing characters that are American and Chinese and she’s neither of those things, but one of the most impressive things is how well she’s pulled that off. Still, there were about a dozen moments that kind of turned a phrase and sounded idiomatically like they were from the U.K. so we refined some of the Americanization.”
Studio will have two plays running this month (Chimerica runs on the main stage, Clare Lizzimore’s Animal will play Studio X). It was important to Muse that the theatre showcase works written by women to coincide with the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and that both were also premieres.
One big challenge with Chimerica was casting, as there are not a wealth of Asian-American actors in the area. “It was substantially challenging,” he says. “We cast both in D.C. and N.Y. and ultimately even got a guy from L.A. It was a national search with many rounds of auditions.”
It was the challenge of pulling off a project this epic that provided the greatest thrill.“To me, it feels like rehearsing a Shakespeare play, which is very familiar to me from all my years at the Shakespeare Theatre, in its reach, complexity, the way you have to think about the props, the design…it got those juices flowing again.” The other really exciting thing was to get to work on a play that feels so in the moment. Since rehearsals have begun, it’s been unbelievable how much China has been in the news.”
As audiences leave the theater, Muse expects people will feel as if they need to grab a beer and talk about the questions the play has raised.
“Some of those have to do with geopolitics and some of those questions just have to do with people,” he says. “It’s a play that’s meant to provoke and is not a play trying to find answers to some of the complicated issues. It’s meant to get people thinking and talking and give us a human way in to issues already affecting us all every day and will still for the next 50 years.”