It’s hard to open your laptop these days without stumbling across a news item about China. Naval maneuvers. Cyber warfare. Millions of manufacturing jobs relocated. And if that’s not enough to convince you there’s a lot on the line, the Treasury Department’s reports that there are about 1.271 trillion reasons to pay attention to what’s happening. That’s as of June 2015.
Here in Washington, D.C., where analysts from the State Department, Pentagon, World Bank and elsewhere rubbing elbows with the rest of us on the Metro every day, a playwright from London might seem an odd source for insight on current affairs.
But Lucy Kirkwood, playwright of the critically acclaimed Chimerica, is willing to challenge that assumption.
The play is told largely through the eyes of Joe Schofield (Ron Menzel), a photographer working for an unnamed but presumably relevant newspaper.
We discover in the opening scene that Joe is the photographer who in 1989 captured the iconic image of an individual standing in protest before a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. We also quickly learn that although Joe was able to take the photograph, he was never able to catch up with the “tank man” whose image he captured or learn what ultimately happened to the man that day.
Flash forward to 2012. Joe is on a routine assignment in China when he discovers that his friend and local source Zhang Lin (Rob Yang) has connections to the “tank man.” Joe is captivated, and commits to using his friend’s connections to seek out the “tank man,” or at the very least uncover his fate.
Joe isn’t alone in his adventures between China and the United States. He’s joined by Mel Stanwyck (Lee Sellars), the burned-out alcoholic reporter whose lack of enthusiasm is ever the foil to Joe’s quixotic mission. Joe also enjoys an on-again off-again relationship with Tessa Kendrick (Tessa Klein), a detached advertising executive from England with an equally intense but far more capitalistic interest in Chinese affairs.
Studio’s production is sharp and eye catching, from the shutter-snapping opener to the dramatic conclusion. A rich set helps set the tone for a well-styled piece, but it’s the projected mosaic of photographs that really drives home the intended aesthetic.
The performances leave us wanting for nothing, either.
Ron Menzel, as Joe, treats us to an anti-hero who’s self-obsessed and singularly driven through any means necessary, bullying his way through strangers and friends alike and breaking promises to the handful of people going out of their way to treat him well. He elicits all the right emotions, and I hope he doesn’t take offense when I say he’s more than believable in the role.
Lee Sellars also plays a relevant and relatable role as Joe’s colleague Mel, bringing a refreshing dose of New York attitude to the stage as he tips back his glass. Likewise, Paul Morella gives a solidly grounded performance as Frank, Joe’s highly-compromised, all-business boss at the paper.
Tessa Klein’s brash but subtle performance offers a welcome foil to the parade of men yelling at one another, and she carries herself with a mirthful dignity that’s cool and breezy.
But Rob Yang is a standout as Zhang Lin. Zhang is beaten down by China’s policies and haunted by a crippling loss he experienced in his youth. He’s tempered and reserved until just the right moment, when he brings a rolling boil of emotion to the stage.
Above all though, Chimerica is meant to provoke reflection on the way we view our rival / trading partner / benefactor to the east. It shows us a China that eludes definition. They’re oppressive, but welcoming. Admiring of Western culture, but fiercely defensive of their own. An economic giant, but crushed under the weight of their own success.
The point is driven home with sharp dialogue and a backdrop that’s rich with symbolism, from the aloof “been there done that” Brit to the bull-in-a-china-shop American.
It’s worth mentioning however that although this production isn’t directly affiliated with the Women’s Voices Festival, said festival does get a name-check in Artistic Director David Muse’s program notes.
With that in mind, it raises the question of the somewhat quizzical use of female characters. To be sure, there are a few, and Tessa is both strong and interesting. Unfortunately, her presence does little to move the plot forward, and, save for one fantastic board-room style monologue, she serves mostly as a sounding board for Joe’s relentless mission.
The roughest treatment of women, however, is reserved exclusively for Asian women. Throughout the play, Asian women are hardly heard from as they scurry around in the role of stewardess, shopkeeper, masseuse, and stripper, but not once are they afforded a position of power.
Hell, there’s literally an Asian woman in a refrigerator. And yes, I’m using the word “literally” correctly.
Intentionally subtle commentary or an unfortunate oversight from an award-winning female playwright? I don’t pretend to have an answer.
But in many ways, that sentiment is at the heart of Chimerica. The play is short on answers but asks some great questions, with a story that will knock the wind right out of you.
It’s worth a look – or maybe two – to make sure you catch all the angles just right.
Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood . Directed by David Muse . Featuring Ron Menzel, Rob Yang, Lee Sellars, Tessa Klein, Paul Morella, Diana Oh, Kelsey Wang, Jacob Yeh, Jordan Barbour, Julie-Ann Elliott, Jade Wu, and Kenneth Lee . Set Design: Blythe Quinlan . Lighting Design: M.L. Geiger . Costume Design: Helen Huang . Sound Design: Matt Tierney . Dramaturg: Lauren Halvorsen . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.