by HAYLEY HUNTLEY
once saw a production of Urinetown: The Musical at an amphitheater in Carson City, Nevada. It was summer in a desert, so when it began to rain in the second act, that was surprise enough. But the fact that the rain fell precisely when Hope began her gospel ballad, “I See a River” — a song about the promise of water in the 11 o’clock hour of a musical about a drought — I couldn’t help but believe in theatre magic.
Theatre Magic, to me, isn’t magic in the pseudoscientific sense. It’s a phenomenon that can only happen in live theatre, in the poetic intersection of our reality and the reality of the play. It usually involves some sort of happy accident, something that adds to the experience instead of subtracting. Rain in an amphitheater? Bad. Rain during a song about water, in a musical about a shortage of water? Magic.
“We laughed for too long, because
someone on stage put our anxiety
into words, and it was too perfect
It feels almost futile to write about Theatre Magic, because most times, it’s not repeatable. But I witnessed it the other night in East West Players’ production of Chinglish, so write about it I must:
In David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, an American businessman (Daniel Cavanaugh) navigates language barriers in China, sometimes through his British translator (Peter Timms), sometimes through a native person’s translator, and sometimes forgoing a translator altogether to communicate directly with a business/love interest (Xi Yan), for whom English is a second language. (This play would be called Lost in Translation if it were a movie and the movie weren’t already a thing.) Chinglish uses supertitles projected onto the set to translate Mandarin into English for the English-speaking audience members. But it also relies on supertitles to reveal the discrepancies in interpretation between speaker and translator, exposing miscommunications that are both slight and vast, both innocent and deliberate. The supertitles exploit idiomatic humor, and they allow us to access the greater theme of cultural differences through language. They’re also a mechanism that allows audiences to see multiple sides of a character — the varying shades of how a person represents herself, depending on whom she’s addressing. In short, the supertitles in Chinglish are a critical device, so last Thursday, when a technical glitch at East West Players caused us to go without supertitles for an entire scene in Act II, a scene spoken exclusively in Mandarin, it mattered.
Now, to have a journalist come to your show the one night your tech malfunctions, and then to have that event be the sole focus of the article that journalist writes — that sounds like a nightmare. But sit tight; I have a plan. (Because if I didn’t talk about the glitch, it would be like if I threw up on the dance floor at prom, and then when you asked, “What did you do at prom?” I just said, “I danced.” The mistakes are part of the story! And sometimes they even add value!)
This is a play about a man who submerges himself in a foreign culture and struggles to see clearly. He’s in perpetual search of signs that he can trust his interpretation of events from behind the thick fog that is his inability to speak the local language. And then here we are, the (at least partially) English-speaking audience, plunged into the exact same situation.
Here’s how it goes: when the scene begins, the projector itself is functioning just fine, but the program responsible for playing the slideshow of supertitles is not. Instead, an image of the computer’s desktop decorates the back wall of the set, dotted with icons and a moving arrow frantically searching for the right thing to click on.
The supertitles go out, the actors go on, and it’s as though our translator bolts from the room and takes our clothes with her, leaving us dumb and naked. Dumb, because we can’t understand a thing now. And naked because we’re suddenly brutally aware of each other, and of ourselves. The audience squirms, fidgets, giggles even — like an assembly full of elementary school children who can see the principal’s boxers. It’s not a powerful feeling — it’s embarrassment. We’re embarrassed.
I feel the need to signal to the actors to stop, but that’s not a good idea. Then I feel the urge to let my fellow audience members know that yes, I too notice something is wrong. This is the most curious part to me, the compulsion I feel to prove I’ve caught on to what’s happening, that I’m not stupid. (Oh shoot! Is that what the character Cavanaugh feels? The itch to scream, “I’m not as dumb as I look! I’m not as dumb as I feel!”)