april 2019 | Volume 178
Production photo by Nancy Caldwell.
In Chimerica, English playwright Lucy Kirkwood gives us a Brit’s-eye snapshot or two dozen of 21st century world powers China and the US. The play has an attractive concept. A detective story of sorts, it involves one man’s search for the Chinese dissident who stood in front of a tank on Tiananmen Square in the famous photo.
But it’s very long, cutting back and forth between 1989 Beijing and 2012 New York during (arbitrarily, I thought) the second Obama election. The play comes in at well over three hours. And it’s chopped up into dozens of short scenes, each one, in Brian Parkinson’s United Players Production, necessitating a semi-blackout during which actors move chairs and tables on and off the set.
Joe (Alex Motherwell), the American cameraman who took the Tiananmen Square shot, makes his living from photographing dissidents and victims of nasty Third World civil wars. The long first act set-up involves him and his buddy Mel (Jordon Navratil) trying to convince editor Frank (Brian Hinson) to let them do a story on the whereabouts of Tank Man two decades later. Is he even alive?
Joe recruits his Beijing friend Zhang Lin (Kylan Liu-Johnston) to help him, and also hooks up with Tessa (Carri Toivanen), some kind of corporate speaker. It takes a long time for the plot to develop, but the ending provides a couple of interesting surprises, including what’s in those two plastic bags Tank Man is holding.
The play has more to say about China—its repressive government, its economy and culture—than the US. On the American side what we see is Joe, the liberal individualist, alienating friends and destroying lives in his fanatical desire to Get The Story.
Patrick Boudreau’s clever sound design makes the furniture-moving just about bearable. But it would be better to have everyone stand than to move all those chairs between every scene.
And some of the set pieces just aren’t necessary given Vanka Salim and Harika Xu’s handsome projections that establish location. If you project the front of a florist shop, why take extra time to haul redundant vases of flowers on and off?
Chimerica is another extraordinarily ambitious project for semi-professional United Players and the very basic infrastructure of Jericho Arts Centre. A decade ago, this show would have been produced by the Playhouse.
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