China Doll: Could I get some dramatic tension with that?

The Gateway Theatre is presenting Marjorie Chan's China Doll.

Jennifer Tong as Su-Ling and Manami Hara as Poa-Poa in the too-simple world of China Doll.
(Photo by Tim Matheson)

Oh man, why do such poorly written plays get produced? Yes, Marjorie Chan’s China Doll is admirably feminist and admirably inclusive of underrepresented experience, but it’s also boring.

Chan starts her story in Shanghai in 1904, when her central character, Su-Ling, is five and her grandmother Poa-Poa starts binding her feet. Tiny deformed feet, Poa-Poa reasons, will ensure a good marriage and restore the status of a family scarred by suicide, opium addiction, and a history in which many of the women were concubines.

Foot binding is a grotesque patriarchal tradition and Chan adds another log to the feminist fire when a fabric seller called Merchant Li, having taught Su-Ling to read, gives her a copy of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. (Su-Ling is in her teens by the time she meets Ibsen’s play.) In the program notes for the Gateway’s production of China Doll, I was interested to read that A Doll’s House sparked a feminist movement in China. But Chan’s feminist analysis is obvious and rudimentary.

And her story flatlines. Su-Ling is passive. Poa-Poa oppresses her. Merchant Li befriends her — and creeps on her — but Su-Ling never engages in the sustained pursuit of an identifiable goal, so there’s no narrative tension. There are events in Act 1 but, because Su-Ling has virtually no agency (although she’s plucky in a generic, meaningless way) nothing happens, dramatically speaking.

When marriage beckons in Act 2 and Su-Ling finally does take action, you know exactly what it’s going to be: she has read A Doll’s House, after all. And, I won’t get into them, but the specific terms of Su-Ling’s defiance are melodramatic and entirely unsustainable.

The evening would be a complete wash if it weren’t for the work that Chan, who has directed this production, is getting from the rest of her team, especially the actors. Jennifer Tong (Su-Ling), Manami Hara (Poa-Poa), Jovanni Sy (Merchant Li), and Donna Soares (Su-Ling’s mother and a servant named Ming) all commit so thoroughly to their characters’ emotional realities that they create a kind of force field; it’s almost enough to make you forget that their dialogue is achingly on the nose.

Heipo Leung’s set feels vacant. And the bolts of cloth that weave between its widely spaced pillars make too-obvious reference to foot-binding bandages. But the production team from CHIMERIK does a good job of enlivening these surfaces with projections — often of calligraphy. And Amy McDougall’s costumes are gorgeous, especially the heavily embroidered ones.

China Doll makes for a long night, though. If you go to see it, have a coffee first.

CHINA DOLL Written and directed by Marjorie Chan. A Gateway Theatre production. At the Gateway Theatre on Friday, October 18. Continues until October 26. 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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