by Lynn on April 1, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Lucy Kirkwood
Directed by Chris Abraham
Set and Costumes by Judith Bowden
Video by Deco Dawson
Lighting by Michael Walton
Sound Design by Thomas Ryder Payne
Cast: Elena Anciro
Evan Buliung
Jasmine Chen
Terri Cherniack
Laura Condlln
Kevin Klassen
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee
Richard Lee
Doug McKeag
Ross McMillan
Diana Tso
Norman Yeung

Chimerica is a complex, multi-layered play touching on matters of consequence, as well as being a mystery about a man in a photograph. Unfortunately it’s been given a bloated, over-directed, over-designed, over projected, over sound effected production by people who are gifted and have done wonderful work elsewhere. That is its biggest disappointment.

The Story. Lucy Kirkwood’s play begins in 1989 in Beijing. Joe Schofield is a young American photojournalist on assignment to cover the student protests in Tiananmen Square. The day after the army massacred hundreds of protestors, Joe sees a lone man holding a plastic shopping bag in each hand, standing in front of a line of tanks in the Square. He takes a picture of him and that photo becomes one of the iconic images of the 20th century. Twenty-three years later US-China economic relations are in the spotlight and Joe goes back to China to try and find the “tank man” in his photo as a human interest story.

Joe’s search takes him back to New York to the murky world of illegal aliens; to call in favours from politicians using unsavoury means; to compromise his ideals; and to endanger the safety of his friends, among other things.

The Production. Set designer Judith Bowden has created a set on a seemingly constantly moving turntable that realizes the many and various locations of this ‘globe-trotting’ production. A central wall on that turntable also turns to reveal a kitchen in Beijing, an apartment in New York or an office somewhere else. Projections of locations and backgrounds are splashed on the back wall (Deco Dawson). When the location changes two steel and Plexiglas panels slide across the stage from opposite sides and back again with the next scene change. Panels also drop down from the flies. Added to this is a dazzle of lighting effects (Michael Walton), all accompanied to blasting sound (Thomas Ryder Payne). This is staged/choreographed to give the impression of constant movement and activity.

When scenes are played it’s interesting to note they are actually small, intimate, cramped even, in nature–a man drinks beer in his small kitchen in Beijing; a man and a woman have a drink in his apartment in New York. Yet these seemingly small places are overpowered by walls that go up to the flies. Technology seems to be the prime force in this production. The result is that the play is dwarfed by the over-bearing production it’s in.

Added to that is that many scenes are underscored with ambient noise and music so that some actors struggle to be heard over the noise. The Bluma Appel Theatre is large anyway. It seems that the production is created to fill the stage rather than to serve the play. The result is that we are bombarded and distracted by movement, sound and light when the reason we’re in the theatre in the first place is to see and hear this engrossing play. (Yes, ‘engrossing’. I saw it first in a small theatre in London in 2013 and have read it. Lucy Kirkwood has written a wonderfully engrossing, challenging play and I wish it was given a better production here.) Even the crucial scene that re-enacts what happened with that lone protestor in front of that tank is given short shrift by Abraham. Instead of connecting the audience to the true power of what happened in that scene, it almost seems perfunctory.

The acting is valiant. Evan Buliung as Joe is impassioned and focused in his quest, but blinkered as to the reality around him. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee plays Zhang Lin, a man who tries to live a quiet life, suppressing anger, sorrow and a deep secret. Laura Condlln plays Tessa Kenrick an expert in marketing and trends globally. She has confidence to a point but a certain vulnerability. Richard Lee does lovely work as an illegal alien with poor English in New York who is heartbreaking when he struggles to explain what happened to his brother in Beijing.

Comment. Lucy Kirkwood has written a bracing, challenging play about China-US relations both political and economical. It is multi-layered and complex. It is also human. It’s the story of a man who was thought to be a hero when he stood in front of that line of tanks. What happened to him to get him there is part of the beauty of this thoughtful play.

If anything is certain about director Chris Abraham, it’s that every single production of his has a clear vision of what the play is about and what the world of that play should look like. He surrounds himself with creators who are on his same page to realize that vision. That is definitely true of Chimerica. Every aspect of the production—sets, lights, projections and music—works as a whole to realize that vision. It’s just that it doesn’t realize the play. It overwhelms, dwarfs and crushes it with its techno-glitz. That’s the most disappointing part of all.

Presented by Canadian Stage and the Royal Manitoba Theatre:

Opened: March 31, 2016.
Closes: April 17, 2016.
Cast: 12: 7 men, 5 women
Running Time: 3 hours.

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