Director, Chris Abraham, does an excellent job of tying together the threads of the various plot lines and underlying themes in Chimerica – a co-production between Canadian Stage and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre – about the complex and tenuous relationship between China and the United States. In 2012, American journalist, Joe Schofield, played by Evan Buliung attempts to track down a man who stood in front of a row of tanks in China’s Tiananmen Square, in 1989. Schofield is an anti-hero who continually drops the ball, both personally and professionally, causing the audience to lose interest in his quest.
British playwright, Lucy Schofield, has created a hollow caricature of a white, American male void of any redeeming features such as humour, kindness or humility. It’s difficult to cheer for the journalist when his quest seems to be impossible and his character questionable.
Kirkwood’s portrayal of Chinese English teacher, Zhang Lin, masterfully played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, (the best performance in the piece) is much more authentic and believable. Lin’s efforts to defy the Chinese government, and stand up for democracy, are quite heroic. But his story seems to form the backdrop to Schofield’s antics.
There’s a penetrating sense of presence in all the scenes in this production. The atmosphere is palpable from the busy streets of Beijing, to the strip clubs of New York and the flower shops of Chinatown. Judith Bowden’s set is constantly moving. Glass doors slide open and shut – panels fall into place – a central wall rotates on a turntable to suggest multiple locations. There’s a sense that nothing is permanent – everything is shifting. The characters live in confined spaces exhibiting short bursts of meaningless conversations. There is seldom a sense of peace, order or reflection. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design is loud – reflecting an urban, transitory environment – in New York and Beijing. Michael Walton’s lighting design is bright and intense – like the lights the Chinese must have endured in their torture sessions after Tiananmen Square. Deco Dawson’s video design creates a news reel fabric on the back wall, enveloping the viewers in a journalistic mosaic.
There is a shared experience of something frightening in this production – not quite comprehensible – but definitely stimulating and worth seeing. The playwright seems to be asking – is Tiananmen Square our future – given that the Chinese own such a huge chunk of the Western economy? Many of us seem to be searching for the heroes who would stand up to the Donald Trump’s in our midst. But that kind of moral leadership seems as elusive as the tank man in the square. Chimerica is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre until April 17th.