Playwright Derek Chan speaks a private artistic language. It’s frustrating, but I like the way it sounds.
In Chicken Girl, there’s a whole lot of fantasy going on. Chicken Girl dresses in a poultry costume to hand out fliers for Uncle Chan’s fried chicken shack. A cat delivers the raw chicken to Uncle Chan. But she’s in the employ of a submariner who has dark designs on both Uncle Chan and Chicken Girl. Meanwhile, a character called Supersuperstar orbits through space singing melancholy songs about displacement.
Is this all a bit much, a bit too random? Why yes, yes it is. Does it make a lot of sense? No it doesn’t — not at first, at least, not to me.
But it still works a lot better than you’d expect. Partly that’s because, under Chan’s direction, Chicken Girl is getting such a strong production.
Amanda Sum (Chicken Girl) and B.C. Lee (Uncle Chan) are two of the best actors in Vancouver and they bring an undeniable groundedness to this project. Sum puts a winningly understated comic spin on the play’s absurdities. And the no-nonsense combination of strictness and affection that Lee brings to Uncle Chan helped me to believe in the character, to feel like I knew him.
I also appreciate Maki Yi’s performance as Cat. I never doubted the depth of her character’s internal emotional conflict, although the script never clarifies its literal terms.
Pedro Chamale is less effective as the Submariner: he tends to declaim his lines melodramatically — although that might be hard to avoid when you’re going on about l’appel de vide, the call of the void. And Marguerite Hanna is inconsistent as Supersuperstar: sometimes their singing is painful, sometimes it’s compelling; their acting spills over the top on occasion, although it’s mostly effectively contained.
All told, the sum of the acting is definitely positive and the show is immersively designed. Shizuka Kai’s set feels like a storybook version of backstreet Hong Kong — or backstreet Vancouver, or backstreet Bladerunner — and projection designer Parjad Sharifi pours all sorts of imagery over its flat surfaces: one minute, a huge flock of pigeons is taking flight in white silhouette; later, we’re floating in the brilliance of the Milky Way.
But what’s going on in Chicken Girl? What’s it about? Thinking about the script the day after seeing it, I’m coming up with more satisfying interpretations than I did when I was watching it in the theatre. I’m not an immigrant, but Chan grew up in Hong Kong — and it seems to me that Chicken Girl’s various characters might embody different aspects of immigrant experience. The suicidal Submariner might represent despair, for instance; his animus towards Uncle Chan and Chicken Girl could be motivated by his rejection of his past and of assimilation, which those characters embody. The anthropomorphized cat woman might be another symbol of incomplete and uncomfortable assimilation: she is neither fully feline nor fully human.
Still, in my experience, the symbolic code of Chicken Girl is sometimes impenetrably dense. What’s the Submariner’s hold on Cat for instance? And sometimes Chan’s approach can be illustrative and obvious: his characters speak explicitly about the importance of embracing the past as a living thing, for example.
There are also times when Chan’s vocabulary is just too private. I had little inkling of why Supersuperstar was present in Chicken Girl until I read later that Chan was raised by a caring but emotionally distant father. That could be why Supersuperstar spends so much time floating around in the chilly reaches of outer space, trying to connect with a father who is a literal astronomical star — and who is incapable of human feeling — but I don’t think I should have to research the playwright’s private life to make sense of his work.
Still, I’m intrigued by Chan’s output. In Chicken Girl,he’s talking about important things, including home and identity, and he’s using refreshing elements — Chicken Girl includes spoken Cantonese and Korean, for instance. The artistic road that Chan is going down shows promise. As he explores it, I hope that he finds ways to be more intuitive and less illustrative, less obscure and more elemental, less coded and more emotionally resonant.
CHICKEN GIRL Written and directed by Derek Chan. A Rice & Beans Theatre production. At the Annex on Wednesday, May 29. Continues until June 7. Tickets.
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