Chimerica: how many hours do you have to spare?

United Players is presenting Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica at the Jericho Arts Centre.

Playing a young revolutionary couple, Olivia Poon and Angus Yam provide some of the most human moments in Chimerica. (Photo by Nancy Caldwell)

I thought it was never going to end. Then, after two hours, the lights finally came up—but it was only intermission. We had another hour and a half to go.

Playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica is about the current murky codependence between China and the States. To explore it, she has invented a character named Joe Schofield, a New Yorker whom she credits with taking the famous photograph of the lone protester standing in front of tanks in Tienanmen Square in 1989. Joe was 18. Now it’s 23 years later and Joe is searching for the guy he calls Tank Man. He says he’s doing it because he wants to celebrate Tank Man’s heroism in an age of equivocation, but he also needs to revive his flagging career—and perhaps his sense of moral purpose.

Flying to Beijing, Joe meets Tessa Kendrick, a British market researcher. She’s afraid of flying. He holds her hand. But she’s also tough so, you know: sparks.

Joe’s friend Zhang Lin, who lives in Beijing, is a former Tienanmen protester and current uneasy pragmatist. He pays lip service to accommodating the damage caused by China’s economic “miracle”—including the lethal smog that the Communist Party passes off as weather— but his wife, who was killed in the massacre, keeps appearing in his fridge like a fragment of the conscience he’s put on ice.

Joe’s search for Tank Man ensnares everybody in a convoluted, sometimes bloody detective story that weaves its way through New York’s boroughs—slowly.

Kirkwood has written endless short scenes and director Brian Parkinson has his acting team set new furniture for what feels like most of them—which probably explains why the runtime for Chimerica is half an hour longer in this United Players production than it was for the UK version.

The overall tone of the acting in this mounting is hesitant, so there’s very little sense of flow or pace in the scenes themselves. The performance by Angus Yam, who plays the young Zhang Lin in flashbacks, and enthusiastically spits out his lines, is a welcome exception. Others, including Jordan Navratil, who’s been cast as a cynical journalist named Mel, overact.

And, even though it’s won prizes—including the Olivier Award for best new play in 2014—there are big problems with the script. Joe is an asshole, for one thing. And I’m not talking about the kind of shadings that can give a character depth. Joe is a macho dick who belittles his friends when they challenge him and who repeatedly—and stupidly—endangers others. In the script’s most contrived moment, he even beats somebody up. So it’s hard to invest in Joe’s relationship with Tessa or to care about his search for Tank Man.

Especially in Act 1, the play’s politics, which focus heavily on Beijing’s smog, are simplistic and repetitive.

But, blessedly, things start to happen in Act 2. Zhang Lin makes a risky political move, for instance. And, in the most conceptually compelling passage in the play, Tess gives a PowerPoint presentation to her corporate employers in which she explains that China can’t be understood as a vast market that’s salivating for American products; in any sales strategy, the centrality of Chinese culture in the lives of Chinese citizens must be accommodated. And she sounds the alarm about a possible future in which debt-wary Chinese consumers embrace American-style debt accumulation.

The production design is boldly effective. In the set, which was designed collaboratively under Parkinson’s guidance, vertical rectangular panels hang down in front of the vast horizontal back wall. When the projections (designed by Vanka Salim and Harika Xu) land on these staggered layers, they create an instant and sophisticated sense of documentary three-dimensionality.

The combination of the script’s scale—there’s a cast of 14 in this production—and its flaws, which make masterful direction a necessity, means that Chimerica is an ambitious choice for United Players. The risk is only intermittently rewarded, but the aspiration is still impressive.

CHIMERICA By Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Brian Parkinson. A United Players production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Friday, March 29. Continues until April 21.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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