by Lynn on March 15, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two plays were broadcast on Friday, March 15, 2013, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 CIUT FM. AS I LAY DYING at Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainstage until March 31, 2013, and CHING CHONG CHINAMAN at the Aki Studio of the Daniels Spectrum Centre.

Phil Taylor was the guest host.

1) Good Friday morning. It’s time for our shot of theatre with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic. Hi Lynn. What are you going to review today?

Hi Phil. Two plays produced by companies who have been doing theatre for a long time.

First AS I LAY DYING, based on the William Faulkner novel, is being given the Theatre Smith-Gilmour treatment. The company started as a clown based company, but over its 34 years it’s developed into a company that distils language into the simplest of dialogue accompanied by movement that tells the story.

And then the provocative titled play CHING CHONG CHINAMAN written by Lauren Yee and produced by fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company, celebrating their 10th anniversary this year.

So two challenging plays.

2) First give us a brief synopsis of AS I LAY DYING.

This is based on William Faulkner’s 1930 novella. We are in the lush, quirky world of the Bundren family. Disfunctional is an apt description. Addie is the mother and she’s the one who is dying at the beginning of the story, and dead soon after. Anse is the lazy, cheap, loveless father. The children are sons Jewel, Cash, Darl, Vardaman and daughter Dewey Dell. Misfits all.

According to Anse, Addie wanted to be buried in Jefferson, her home town, 40 miles where she lived. Anse was going to see she got her wish. Cash built the coffin. The trip took 9 days because there were terrible storms that took out bridges they could not cross. They got swept away at one point in a raging river.

They went from town to town trying to get to Jefferson, sometimes run out of towns because the smell of the body rotting in the coffin. Each member of the family had his/her secrets. So the journey was fraught with incident and tensions.

3) How did they go about dramatising the novel?

Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s co-artistic directors: Michelle Smith and Dean Gilmour, have been turning the short stories of Chekhov, The Brothers Grimm, Katherine Mansfield and even the Bible, into theatrical story-telling.

AS I LAY DYING is their next step—turning a novel into their spare but vibrant productions. So Smith and Gilmour in collaboration with their company of actors adapted the story.

Seven actors play several parts—there are about 56 characters in the book. They have kept the main format of the book—short chapters, each devoted to a character in the book. And then distilled the language of the book to their essence in dialogue and the rest is conveyed in vivid movement and sound.

The storm for example, is a torrent of body movement, swaying in wind, jerking and flipping in the raging river; even suggesting the coffin wildly tossing in the water. By the end of that scene you could swear that all the characters’ clothes are sopping wet because of the storm and the river.

The physicality of their storytelling is so compelling and gripping that by the end, you get the sense of having exerted all sorts of energy to get to their destination.

I love that about them

4) With only seven actors playing all those parts, how do they do it?

They put on a different nose and perhaps a hat. That’s it. The noses are obviously fake, held in place by an elastic band that goes around the head. Simple and brilliant.

The production is co-directed by Michelle Smith, who plays Addie both living and dead; and Dean Gilmour who plays Anse…and the company of course collaborates. They are all terrific.

The company continues to push itself into new territory of telling their stories simply and vividly.

5) And now for CHING CHONG CHINAMAN. A provocative title if ever there was one.

It kind of makes you sit up and hold your breath. It’s written by Lauren Yee and is a wild look at stereotypes, racism and family dysfunction, again.

It’s about an Asian-American family, born and raised in the States. The father plays golf and seems disinterested in his wife. The mother (his wife) does nothing all day—she doesn’t work outside the home– and is unhappy and wants to have another child.

The teenaged son Upton plays video games and wants to create them and nothing else. He mysteriously sponsors a man from China name Jing Zhou to come live with him and do his homework so he will pass high-school. The assumption is that all Chinese are good at science. Many of the prejudices are of this Asian-American family. The family mispronounces Jing Zhou’s name hence the offensive CHING CHONG… They are told to just call him J. To add further insult, the father thinks they should order Chinese food since J is Chinese. They do and he finds it inedible of course because it’s nothing like the authentic Chinese food he’s used to back home in China.

J speaks no English but comes to America because he wants dance on an American Idol type show.

The daughter Desdemona is a hyper achiever who is desperate to get into Princeton and goes to great lengths to write her personal essay full of trauma and woe in order to win over the admissions committee. The story-telling is deliberately over the top to really play up the stupidity of racism and stereotypes.

5) Is the acting over the top to go with the wild writing?

I’d say that’s what director Nina Lee Aquino is going for. The cast scurry all over Camellia Koo’s efficient set with its sliding doors and moveable set pieces.

It’s just that some of that heightened angst wears thin. However that’s not the case with Richard Lee who plays J. Lee is watchful, quietly reacts to this silly family and is totally believable in this unbelievable situation.

And the same goes for Jane Luk who plays several characters, from the unfortunate young woman Desdemona is counting on to get her a place in Princeton, to J’s phone sex worker mother. Jane Luk is quixotic, funny and believable.

6) Is the play successful in conveying its point?

I had a difficult time buying into the farcical aspect of it but that’s not to say others won’t.

I do applaud fu-Gen Asian Canadian Theatre Company for telling the stories of Asian Canadians and Americans; giving voice to them. It’s important. But I had trouble buying into this one.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

AS I LAY DYING plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace until March 31.

CHING CHONG CHINAMAN plays at the AKI Studio of the Daniels Spectrum Centre until March 30.

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