Wrong Words Make Us Laugh at Superpowers in David Henry Hwang's 'Chinglish'

Chinese signs with unintentionally comical English translations -- crack me up no end. "Slip carefully." "You can enjoy the fresh air after finishing civilized urinating." These mangled translations are known as Chinglish (or Engrish), egregiously mistranslated Chinese with accidentally hilarious consequences. The documenting of such "found humor" is a pastime that has resulted in numerous blogs and books -- and now a play at Berkeley Rep.

Chinglish, written by David Henry Hwang, is really about communication and social protocol between Americans and Chinese. As an American Midwesterner learns the fine art guanxi and Chinese business etiquette, this slight comedy touches upon the theme of the shifting balance of power and the China/America top/bottom relationship. These are themes that were addressed ever so brilliantly and beautifully in M. Butterfly, Hwang's 1988 play about the love affair between an American diplomat and a Chinese opera diva, who is in fact a man masquerading as a woman.


Michelle Krusiec and Alex Moggridge

Alex Moggridge plays a fresh-faced American business man, representing the Ohio Signage Company who is angling for a big contract in a small Chinese city. Well aware of the pitfalls of Chinglish, he promises to save the town from embarrassment by getting the translations right. We learn that in Chairman Mao's efforts to simplify the tens of thousands of ancient Chinese characters, many characters have more than one meaning, often leading to speech that gets lost in translation.

And as we all know from Shakespeare and sit-coms, misunderstanding is the stuff on which comedy is made.

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Larry Lei Zhang and Michelle Krusiec

Chinglish, directed by Leigh Silverman, is performed in both English and Mandarin, with projected subtitles. In the play, diplomacy is often undermined by inept translators who provide lousy and often unintentionally honest translations. With language conversions that distort and/or cut to the chase, the transmuted sentiments remind me (somewhat) of Stephen Colbert's segment called "the Word," in which the written word mischievously defies the spoken word.


Austin Ku, Celeste Den and Vivian Chiu

In a town where bureaucrats think Enron felons are Bonnie and Clyde-type heroes, the Minister of Culture is eager to become a high roller ("you roll the big crap" is the translated compliment.) Larry Lei Zhang plays the affable and seemingly honorable minister. Michelle Krusiec is terrific as his assistant minister, a hard-boiled broad with an agenda of her own. Krusiec's performance skillfully bridges the play's tricky balance between noir and romantic comedy.

The quick scene changes accompanied by booming club music seek to emulate the high stakes energy of the heist or sting operation genre. And indeed, there are allegiances, betrayals and some wheeling and dealing. But this is no Mamet drama, nor is it a full throttle comedy, nor a particularly thought-provoking cultural ponderation, although it dabbles in each genre.


Michelle Krusiec and Alex Moggridge

Reviewers have called the play sexy because a knock-out actress (Michelle Krusiec) plays the secretive tough-cookie with a passionate side, and who isn't turned on by that?

But even passion is played for light laughs as pillow talk also has chinglistic misfires.

Longer than an episode of Three's Company, David Henry Hwang's play is entertaining for a while. But websites like Engrish.com and Chairman LOL and Sign Spotting (with their snarky remarks) will do the job too.

Chinglish runs through October 7, 2012 at The Roda Theatre in Berkeley, CA. For tickets and information, visit berkeleyrep.org.

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