Coming to ‘Chimerica’

Chimerica at the Almeida Chimerica at the Almeida ChimericaThese days I go to the theater once in a blue moon. The last time I wrote a review of a play was in 1971, when I patronized a coffee house theater in New Brunswick, NJ. In college I majored in English lit, founded an arts supplement to our college daily (the storied Rutgers Daily Targum), and did what I could to boost the theater. Subsequently I left the realm of Culture for Social Science. Don’t laugh.

I realize now I can’t be much of a theater person. I’m too misanthropic. When the audience titters at lame jokes, it irritates me. I’d rather be alone to drink in the play or movie without disturbances.

The title of the play is from a neologism coined by Niall Ferguson, about which, or whom, the less said the better. The play doesn’t depend much on NF’s cartoon economics. The initiating premise is the search by a photographer for the man in the famous picture standing in front of a line of tanks at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. I won’t rehash the plot. I hate when reviewers do that. I prefer to discover it on my own, if I decide to see the movie or play.

This play is long, over three hours. It takes its own sweet time, too. Despite that, I was never bored. One reason is that the staging is ingenious, what they do in a small space. It’s multilevel and multimedia. You have to be there to appreciate it, so I won’t try to describe it.

A lot of the dialog is loud, trite, and rapid. It was often hard for me to follow. If I got hold of a script for the play I would read it, and maybe think better of it. A fair amount of the dialog is in Chinese. I get that it is not supposed to be comprehensible to English speakers. It’s just that these interludes, of which there are more than a few, are unedifying.

There are stock characters — the crotchety newspaper editor. The cynical, hard-bitten reporter. The evil secret police. (I don’t mean they aren’t evil, just that they are predictable.) In that last regard, if you’re going to have brutal Chinese soldiers, they should look like goons, not junior high school students.

Some of the acting is good, some not. The lead Chinese, a teacher, is mostly wooden, occasionally weepy. The American photo-journalist is operatic. The British business lady is the best. The lesser characters did better.

The material they have to work with is not great. The story is thin and takes a long time to unfold. I thought it was soapy; maybe I’m too unfeeling (see ‘misanthrope’ above). One critic described it as a ‘pot-boiler.’

The grasps for profundity in re: what the U.S. and China have to do with each other are lost on me. China is capitalist and still brutally intolerant of dissent. The U.S. ‘loses’ jobs to China. (Actually, the U.S. gives jobs to China and could replace them, with the appropriate policies. Unlike Ferguson, I’m an economist.) Journalism is morally deficient. Tiananmen was horrible. Okay.

The GF points out that of all the shortcomings of China that might be keyed upon, smog does not necessarily belong on top of the list. China has been undergoing an industrial revolution with many beneficiaries, but also many casualties. The U.S. is complicit in both. In this respect, China and the U.S. have a lot in common.

Chimerica is playing at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C.


Coming to ‘Chimerica’ — 4 Comments

  1. Lmao…do Asians all look alike to you too? At least try to have the right actors in a review you are posting. That picture is from the London production. Hope that wasn’t as “unedifying” as the Chinese being spoken in a play about China.

  2. I’m aware it’s from the London production. I didn’t find any from the DC version.

    Why extended dialog in a language I don’t understand should be edifying is a mystery to me.


  3. It just occurs to me that I’ve read something about subtitles being used at live opera performances.

  4. There were just a couple of points in the play where they actually did that — run subtitles for the Chinese dialog in a projection on part of the stage set. They could have done more, so clearly the decision on what to show and what not to was aesthetic, and wrong in my view.

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