Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: (Montreal) Thinking of Yu

l-r  Shiong-en Chan, Danielle Desormeaux (photo by: Ange J. Murphy)

Head and Heart
by Caitlin Murphy

April has been quite the news month for stories that challenge our ideas about responsibility, consequence and our capacity for change.  Playing now at the Centaur Theatre, Thinking of Yu, written by Carole Frechette, directed by Micheline Chevrier, and produced by Imago Theatre, offers up another. 

The play’s starting point, as well as Frechette’s for writing it, is a news article about the 2006 prison release of a Chinese journalist Yu Dongyue, sentenced to 17 years for throwing red paint at a portrait of Mao during the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Maggie, a middle-aged woman with a social-activist past, has recently moved, and finds herself lost in a sea of unpacked boxes and unclear ambitions. Stumbling across the article about Yu’s release, she becomes obsessed with his plight:  the courage of his gesture, the severity of its consequence. Unable to focus on her translation work, or give due attention to her sometime ESL student, Lin, Maggie falls down a rabbit hole of research and speculation.

The highly-stylized set – Maggie’s apartment building stripped down to its metal skeleton – is impressive and cold.

Thinking of Yu asks some very penetrating existential questions about individual responsibility and courage.  How do we determine what we can change about our world and what we can’t?  Should we act anyway, regardless of what impact our actions might have?  Is it better to curse the hand we’ve been dealt, or simply play it?  As Chevrier insightfully offers in her director’s notes:  “I find myself as an ordinary person wanting to do extraordinary things.”  The play’s themes are universal:  we have all wondered whether the mere intensity of our desire to do good is matched by our real ability to do so.  Overall, it’s a ragged rehashing of the serenity prayer that leads to some pretty engaging debate.

That said, the dialectic comes up a bit too high in the mix, and the character drama falls too low.  As a play, Thinking of Yu struggles to find that balance between dramatic story-telling and history lesson.  Character voice and relationships often rise to the surface (early encounters between Maggie and Lin, for instance, are charged and engaging) only to be sideswiped by headier editorializing.   The writing (and translation by John Murrell) is also quite narrative in nature; dialogue is often on the nose and lacking subtext.   As a result, actors’ delivery frequently falls into a declarative mode.  Alone in her apartment, for instance, Maggie often speaks to the ether, reporting action that we have just witnessed.

Lin, a 20 year-old Chinese student in Canada to learn English, is definitely the most appealing character, and, most rooted in her own experience, she is the most believable as well.  Shiong-En Chan’s performance is charmingly twitchy and alive. 

The highly-stylized set – Maggie’s apartment building stripped down to its metal skeleton – is impressive and cold.  The grey, plastic crates, bare lightbulb, and awkward laptop setup eerily evoke Maggie’s restless, uncertain soul. The steel beams and ceiling nicely recall the jail cell that Yu Dongyue languished in for 17 years, and the set’s few splashes of red give quiet homage to his transgression. Appropriately, this is not a comfortable place to be.

I do really admire Thinking of Yu for the difficult questions it wrestles with, the rich conversations it will certainly inspire, and the spotlight it shines on a story that could elsewhere be deemed a historical footnote.  The play wears its head a bit too much on its sleeve though. And its heart – clearly there, red and pulsing – beats a bit too quietly.

To May 5

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