Lost in translation
by Richard Dodds
Inflammable self teaches departure leaders rare exodus close by. Or, the State of California asks that you take a moment to identify your nearest exit in the unlikely event of fire. I made up that first sentence, but you'd probably get something similarly incoherent if you attempted a word-by-word translation of the familiar pre-show advisory using a Mandarin-English dictionary. You could also expect a grammatical muddle if trying the same sort of transliteration of French or Spanish into English, but it's likely to be a bit more comprehensible and a bit less adorably mis-rendered.
But it's a cultural quaintness heard only by the receiver and not intended by the speaker. And that can be dangerous when it involves life, liberty, and the pursuit of dead presidents (translate last part carefully, please). This is the notion behind Chinglish, David Henry Hwang's generally humorous exploration of what happens when worlds, and their words, collide. Following a modest Broadway run last year, it's now at Berkeley Rep in a co-production with South Coast Rep.
Hwang established his playwriting career back in 1988 with M. Butterfly, another East-West culture clash with a protagonist incited by the scents of a mysterious Orient. But the mysteries have romantically devolved as China hosts its suitors in high-rise office buildings and generically designed hotel rooms. Even so, what is lost in translation can bring either ruin or riches to the characters in Chinglish .
Much of the dialogue is rendered in Mandarin Chinese, but the audience has a step up on an American businessman on a last-ditch push to save his failing sign business. Projected supertitles show what Chinese officials are actually saying, while a translator provides an often-errant interpretation to the corn-fed businessman from Ohio. And whatever he says in response gets even more mangled, as we see in the supertitles what the translator has sometimes mischievously reworked into Mandarin.
Hwang mines considerable humor from what could be a one-joke device. And the playwright adds in subplots of romance and backstabbing, which provide more heft to the multi-scene play. But it is still a fairly thin reworking of a theme that Hwang explored with far more layers and nuance in M. Butterfly, which had the benefit of its based-on-a-true-story inspiration from a tale mirroring the sweep of grand opera.
Leigh Silverman, who directed Chinglish on Broadway, has repeated that assignment for the Berkeley Rep production. The staging does what it has to do, and smoothly moves from locale to locale on David Korin's substantial revolving set based on his Broadway designs.
Alex Moggridge paints the fish-out-of-water American in simple shades, and there is purposeful interchangeability to most of the other characters. One exception is Michelle Krusiec, who plays a seductive bureaucrat with an allure that hides a steely core.
Chinglish is at its best when exploring language itself, explaining to us how there really is a logical reason why a store in China would post a sign for Anglophones that reads, "Fuck the Certain Price of Dry Goods." The ultimate message of Hwang's play seems to be, "Chuckle at your own risk."
Chinglish will run through Oct. 7 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $14.50-$99. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.