Mini-review – Consumed – Border Crossings at Tara Arts

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Consumed had a lot of ingredients that I was interested in theater-wise: new writing, the impact of technology on how people interact with each other, a look at how China had changed in the last 25 years. As a bonus, it was to be performed partly in Mandarin (how would they handle this?), at a theater near my house (Tara Arts) and I was offered free tickets – so hurray!

I was pretty unclear about what the subject of the play was supposed to be (“Tong Zheng returns from the States – to sell Wall Street. Who is the fascinating ‘Shanghai beauty’ he meets online?”). With all of the cyberpunk I read, I expected that we were going to explore virtual realities, and find out that Tong Zheng had actually fallen in love with a computer (a la Mona Lisa Overdrive), or some person masquerading as a different person (gender, age etc.) online (like Me and You and Everyone We Know). But I liked the idea of plunking this storyline into something linked up with the financial crisis – where would it all go? How would the mistakes of modern banking play out in this kind of storyline?

The actual plot is this: John Bartholomew, a British financier (Serge Soric), is carrying on an affair with Su Chen, a Chinese executive (Song Ru Hui), despite the fact neither of them speak the same language. (Their dialogue is frequently not translated at all; but at other times the Chinese to English translation appeared projected on the wall behind them.) The financier is trying to set up a shady deal to get a government contract to build a shopping mall, which he’s doing in partnership with Tong Zheng (Ning Li), a Chinese man who has been in the US long enough to get an American wife and family and who can provide the hacking skills Bartholomew needs to make sure their deal is at just the right price point to win the contract. Bartholomew then comes up with the idea of having Tong Zheng translate his and Su Chen’s text conversations (also broadcast on the screens behind the stage); but at some point Tong Zheng decides to just carry on the romance without Bartholomew. The deal goes wrong, the affair goes wrong, and Tong Zheng’s secret is revealed … I think that’s enough to keep you interested without revealing all of the plot.

The story is sectioned off in chapters (about 19) which are introduced in Mandarin and then English. It’s an interesting framing device, but isn’t really able to overcome the two shortcomings of this play: the script and the acting. I found the little segments didn’t really piece together to make sense, and didn’t explore the things I was interested in. Yes, it’s a different culture than ours, yes, things have really changed in China a lot since I was there in ’88 (this bit was conveyed well); but what was happening in the present, the actual plot, just seemed … irritating. Trivial. Cobbled together.

Sadly, I think much of the blame for this came from the poor performance of Ning Li. I can forgive him for not sounding all that much like he’d just spent a decade in America, but I can’t get over the fact that the night I saw the show, he seemed to be forgetting what he was supposed to be saying, then spitting something out with no affect, like he was trying so hard to remember what to say that he couldn’t manage to stay in character and like it wasn’t likely actually the correct words. I felt distanced from the entire effort from his performance. Soric seemed wholly confident and Song Ru Hui seemed convincing in her role (which seemed pretty two dimensional) but I cringed a bit when Tong Zheng had a scene. There was one terribly beautiful moment when he translated a poem from literary Chinese into English … but it was fleeting. Rather like the romance at the heart of the play, if you think about it.

At the end, Ning Li gave a long speech describing his character’s past in Mandarin, and a piece of paneling fell down behind him, missing him by about a foot. He didn’t miss a beat. I was impressed; but sad, later, that for me and my roommate, this was the emotional high point of the evening. Oh well. Someday my Chinese cyberpunk play will become a reality.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, February 22nd, 2013. The show is now touring.)

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