By MARK BLANKENSHIP
At the moment, Broadway shows are set everywhere from the African plains to the Australian outback to the trenches of World War I, but no matter how cosmopolitan they are, they're all performed in English. Except for Chinglish.
Sure, David Henry Hwang's new comedy is frequently in English, but it also features monologues, arguments, and entire scenes in Chinese.
The overlapping languages are central to the play, now in previews at the Longacre Theatre. We follow an American businessman who wants to revive his career by landing a contract with the Chinese government, so he hires a British expat named Peter Timms to help him impress local officials. Things go awry when a Chinese minister named Xi Yan reveals that she understands enough English to know when an American is acting like a fool. From there, language barriers inform everything from an awkward dinner to a surprising romance.
Projected titles translate the Chinese dialogue, so when characters talk to each other, we know how much they miss. We realize how often people are being misinterpreted, and we realize that a person's "language" is about more than words. It's about deeply held beliefs and subtle shades of meaning that someone from another culture may never understand.
This puts unusual pressure on the cast. Jennifer Lim, who plays Xi Yan, and Stephen Pucci, who plays Peter Timms, both spend half the play speaking English and the other half speaking Chinese. "With Chinese, the syntax and the grammar and the vocabulary are so different from English that you really have to embody a different persona," says Pucci, a Brit who holds a BA in Mandarin Chinese and lived in China for two years. "Switching between the two is incredibly challenging."
He continues, "Chinese is communicated largely through the use of tones. When we're speaking European languages, we tend to express feeling and opinion by intonating things, with rising inflection or emphatic downward inflection. But you can't really do that in Chinese because it changes the meaning of what you're saying."
As actors, therefore, Pucci and Lim can't rely on Western vocal techniques to communicate the nuance of their Chinese lines. "I'm pointing left, right, and center," says Lim, who was raised in Hong Kong and earned theatre degrees in the U.K. and the U.S. "I'm using hand gestures. My face is so animated." She adds, though, that these are not just "acting tools." They're also cultural touchstones: "Pointing is rude in the West, but I've traveled enough to China and been in enough situations to know that what's considered rude in one culture is not in another. You've got to make your point, and if it's hard for me to communicate, then I'm going to use whatever I've got in my arsenal."
Pucci says even his physical performance changes when his character switches between languages: "In my Chinese persona, I'm more animated physically than what one might associate with British people. It's more externalized. It comes out more in gesture, whereas as a Brit, we're brought up to be much more internalized in terms of how we behave and communicate."
Living between languages also tells the actors how to play certain scenes. Sometimes, for instance, Xi intentionally speaks Chinese to an American so she can express private feelings without being understood. "She can say things that she has probably never said before," says Lim. "She may have had those feelings, but they were buried. There's a severity to her, and a strength and a power to her, that she can let go of. And for me, that makes the role so exciting to play because I can strike both bells."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor