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JADE CIRCLE: Lovely, Incomplete

by | Mar 8, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

Playwright and performer Jasmine Chen’s Jade Circle is a delicate, stylish, sometimes resonant piece of work that could use more concrete storytelling.

Jade Circle is about reclaiming the language of one’s origin. In Chen’s autobiographical script, she shares the process of reconnecting with her deceased maternal grandmother, whom she calls Waipo, by learning Mandarin. (Chen is from Taiwan but, growing up, she acquired only a few childish basics of the language.)

In performance, she delivers most of the script in Mandarin, which is an impressive feat in itself — and the textures of language are a big part of the experience of this piece. Daniel O’Shea’s gorgeous video design, which takes up the entire back wall of the stage, features subtly coloured, organic abstractions. When you arrive in the space, the delicately waving tendrils on the screen — off-white, dark teal, and rust — make you feel you could be underwater. The effect is meditative. But the screen also engages with language: Mandarin and English translations; Mandarin and English text appearing simultaneously in elegant configurations; dialogue assigned by name to help us keep the characters straight (Chen, her mom, and her grandmother).

And there are other textures, including Chen’s live voice and recorded voices. Sometimes Chen speaks or sings on top of the recorded voices, which is a nice variation.

All of this is pleasing.

And, for me, the emotional story dropped into place when Chen’s mom told her about how Waipo was suddenly and unexpectedly separated from her family during the Chinese Civil War when she left China for a short trip to Taiwan — and found she couldn’t go home. Apparently, that early trauma, which included imprisonment in Taiwan, played some part in making Waipo an unstable and erratic caregiver to Chen’s mother, so her pain was passed through generations — and nobody talked about it. Dramaturgically, the themes of separation and loss, language and biography, overlap most effectively here.

Still, as I said off the top, I yearned for more concrete and detailed storytelling. Chen sings songs she remembers Waipo singing to her when she was little, but, other than interviews, which bring with them the distance of research, there’s very little interaction between any of the characters. There isn’t even a baseline for Chen’s relationship with her mom. This sense of abstraction can be understood as a function of the family’s silence about the past, of course — and it might speak more strongly to folks who have had similar experiences — but, for me, it meant that the show was less emotionally impactful and considerably less dynamic than it might have been.

Under Derek Chan’s direction, Jade Circle is well realized on its own terms. But I wish those terms had included more narrative fullness.

JADE CIRCLE by Jasmine Chen. Directed by Derek Chan. On Friday, March 8. Produced by Rice & Beans Theatre in association with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. In the Gateway Theatre’s Studio B until March 17. Tickets

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Jasmine Chen by Julia Kim. Video by Daniel O’Shea. Lighting by Jonathan Kim.

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