Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman Delivers Satire, Wacky Family Antics

Desdemona (Conni Mah) has her eyes on Princeton in Lauren Yee's Ching Chong Chinaman. Photo Credit: Lillie Cameron

Desdemona (Conni Mah) has her eyes on Princeton University in Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman. Photo Credit: Lillie Cameron.

American society is often referred to as a cultural melting pot, a concept which vastly differs from Canada’s cultural mosaic. For any unfamiliar with the term, the melting pot refers to a society where its members have ‘melted’ into a homogeneous culture, adopting a singular identity (“American”).

While some may dislike the idea of the melting pot, there are others who fully embrace assimilation like the Wong family who are as American as apple pie. Maybe too American, in fact, if you ask daughter Desdemona (Conni Mah).

American playwright Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman tells the story of Ed (Ben Wong) and Grace Wong (Grace Lu) and their two children, Upton (Devin Kotani) and Desdemona. The Wongs are a suburban Chinese-American family with all the usual troubles. Upton spends too much time playing World of Warcraft, Desdemona is stressed out about her grades and being accepted into Princeton, and Ed and Grace have communication problems. Everything drastically changes, however, when Chinese immigrant J (Kida Nakamura), hired by Upton to do his homework and chores, starts living at the Wong residence. J’s presence brings to surface questions about cultural identity that the Wong family has never seriously asked themselves before.

Much of the play is driven by Desdemona’s struggle writing a compelling admissions essay for Princeton. Desdemona cannot think of any obstacles she has had to overcome as a well-to-do American girl living in a nuclear family. In search of inspiration, and after watching the Joy Luck Club, Desdemona decides to explore her Chinese ancestry for help writing her essay.

That is a big part of what Yee goes after in this satirical comedy, that ethnicity, even the lack of, only matters when necessary. Never at any point of the play does the Wong family experience any sort of ethnicized discrimination. A lot of that is owed to the fact that the family plays the White Man’s game, which is not just golf in this case. Striking white makeup on the actors’ faces – with the exception of Nakamura – emphasizes the fact. Yee’s point is that sure, people enjoy Chinese things, like fortune cookies, but that is as far as it goes. There is a lot to be gained socially when immigrants totally assimilate into American culture, and plenty to lose out on otherwise. Cultural identity effectively becomes more about politics and less about meaningful self-perception, something Desdemona eventually struggles with in her investigations.

Given the eye catching title of the play, audiences should not be surprised that Yee’s satire burns hot. Yee’s oddball humour, too, makes for an enjoyable visit with the Wong family, until the second act anyway. The second act shifts gears in terms of tone, leaving us with something of a messy ending. Still, there are a lot of laughs to be had, particularly from the Wong family’s unease trying to connect with J – who they call Ching Chong, among other stereotypical names.

Limited space inside the Motel Theatre stifles the actors’ performances. Added chairs in the front means the front row has to tuck in their legs so not to hit or trip any of the actors. Nakamura and Lu have little room for their tap dance routine, which sees big leg movement from Nakamura. The lack of space creates hesitation, hindering the sort of pace needed to deliver Yee’s comedic material. Director John Iglesias might have done well by not adding any more chairs to an already tight space.

Maybe JP Thibodeau’s ‘white washed’ design for the Wong residence could have been scaled back, too.

Mah displays great comedic chops as Desdemona. Mah’s hilarious teen angst plays well against Wong’s Ed, a corporate type who rather be on the green than at home dealing with his family. Lu’s Grace is a lonely housewife who everyone ignores, everyone except for J. Lu’s blossoming personality is a lot of fun to watch, especially as the tables turn on everyone else. Kotani plays pro-gamer Upton with delight. The mostly silent Nakamura really steals the show. Nakamura’s expressions of confusion at the totally strange Wong family are hilarious.

Otherwise strong performances are troubled by several fumbled lines of dialogue, unfortunately.

Overall, Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman is a very funny play that has a lot to say, and says it brilliantly, about America’s melting pot. While Yee’s strong writing may trip in the second act, the Wong family is still worth visiting, thanks to the ensemble’s dynamic performances.

Iglesia Productions’ Ching Chong Chinaman runs Oct 27 – Nov 7 at the Motel Theatre (Arts Commons).

Before The Night Takes Us Lurks, Bumps

Kas Nixon as Alison in Ryan Reese's Before The Night Takes Us. Photo Credit: Colton Holmes.

Kas Nixon as Alison in Ryan Reese’s Before The Night Takes Us. Photo Credit: Colton Holmes.

Alison (Kas Nixon) hasn’t been sleeping well lately. Nightmares of grisly murders torment the frustrated clarinetist who has all but lost her ability to play. When Ray (Joel David Taylor), a telepathic pianist, walks into Alison’s life, she is soon thrown into something more sinister than she could ever expect.  For Alison, things are only going to get worse (and weirder) before they get better.

Presented by Theatre BSMT, Ryan Reese’s Before The Night Takes Us is a suspense-filled drama that trips over its paranormal premise.

For a character whose abilities are even a mystery to him, Ray sure seems to have a lot of answers, or a lot of good guesses. Part of that is due to Reese being quick to change/expand the rules of Ray and Alison’s telepathy when convenient. Of course, Reese is faced with the challenge of both establishing ground rules to adhere by and fleshing out a whole story within 120min, so wild assumptions by the characters are to be expected. Still, one cannot help but feel that the drama is undermined by fluctuations in the play’s logic.

Thankfully, Amy (Samantha Duff), a no-nonsense detective, gives the play immediacy, a sense of danger. While Amy trusts Ray’s abilities, Amy also needs answers now. She can’t wait on Ray to unlock the secrets of Alison’s dreams, especially not when there is a serial killer loose in the city. For Amy, the clock is ticking, and every minute that goes by is another minute where someone’s life is in danger.

But again, there are some problems with the play’s logic that are hard to ignore. The truth about Alison’s dreams raise questions about what kind of office Amy is working in that none of her colleagues or superiors would notice something off about one of their top detectives. And despite having access to her case files, in addition to her mind, Ray fails to recognize any inconsistencies with the investigation.

These issues aside, Reese intrigues with the general greyness of the characters – greyness in terms of his characters’ true motives, their murky pasts, and their relationships with one another. As we become more acquainted with Alison, Ray, and Amy, the loneliness of these characters become more apparent; the search for a connection more potent. And that is mainly what carries our interest through to the end: the fate of these characters thrown together against strange circumstances.

Unfortunately, the play proceeds at a choppy pace, mainly due to its scenes of varying lengths and their hard transitions. When the lights come down, so too does the energy. The dip in pace is partly due to the odd configuration of just one entrance/exit. Director Kyle Schulte might have opted for a set-up that allows better flow between scenes, rather than one where there is a good amount of unused physical space (which would feel emptier if it were not for some instruments laying around).

Taylor rises to the task of playing the piano live on stage. He and Nixon share good energy together on stage. Though Duff is who most catches our eye with her menacing presence. Fortunately, Nixon holds her own in her clashes with Duff. The two are a sharp pair that respond to each other effectively.

A murdery mystery with a paranormal twist, Reese’s Before The Night Takes Us catches our attention with its grey characters, but then loses us with its thin logic.

Theatre BSMT’s Before The Night Takes Us runs May 6 – 9 at Motel Theatre (Arts Commons).

For more information about the show, visit:

Theatre BSMT’s !Duranged! Is a Fun, Bizarre Evening at the Theatre

“Safe” is not a word that appears in Playwright Christopher Durang’s vocabulary. If one needs proof of this, then one only needs to look to Durang’s ‘dentity Crisis and Wanda’s Visit. And conveniently for us, Theatre BSMT has packaged the two for its latest production.

Presented at Motel Theatre inside the EPCOR Centre, Theatre BSMT’s double header !Duranged! is an evening of absurdist humour injected with high-energy antics.

First up is ‘dentity Crisis, the evening’s more bizarre play. Coming off a recent suicide attempt, Jane (Elisa Benzer) is trapped at home with her overbearing mother, Edith Fromage (Hayley Feigs), who claims to have invented cheese. Jane’s brother Robert (Alan Johnson) offers no solace as he is not only passionately in love with their mother, but he is constantly turning into Jane’s father, her grandfather, and a French count. Jane’s only ally seems to be her psychiatrist Mr. Summers (DJ Gellatly) who helps her cope with her psychosis.

Benzer does well not to play her lines for laughs, instead going for the dark, disturbed nature of her character (as she best demonstrates in her “Peter Pan” monologue). In doing so, the ensuing absurdity has somewhere to go as opposed to hitting us at 100% from the beginning , which would exhaust the audience.

The escalating nature of the piece is laugh-out loud funny. The actors fully commit to the outrageous hijinks that hit one after another from beginning to end. (It gets to a point where even the sight of Gellatly’s ridiculous facial expressions draw big laughs from the audience).

Unfortunately, some of that eagerness leads to some stumbling on lines.

As well, the momentum of the play is interrupted by the poor build of the two doors on stage. Every entrance and exit makes the door frames wobble, giving the actors a hard time when they try to shut the door behind them. It is enough to cause a dip in the energy.

Jane loses grasp of reality and her own identity in Christopher Durang's 'dentity Crisis. Pictured (left to right): Alan Johnson, Hayley Feigs (Back), Elisa Benzer (Front), DJ Gellatly. Photo Credit: Chelsey Fawcett

Jane loses grasp of reality and her own identity in Christopher Durang’s ‘dentity Crisis. Pictured (left to right): Alan Johnson, Hayley Feigs (Back), Elisa Benzer (Front), DJ Gellatly. Photo Credit: Chelsey Fawcett

Foregoing an intermission, a fun musical interlude plays while the cast disassembles and arranges the set for the evening’s second play.

Wanda’s Visit tells the story of Jim (Gellatly) and Marsha (Tara Marlena Laberge), a married couple celebrating 13 years together. But when Jim’s old highschool girlfriend Wanda (Feigs) comes to visit, jealousy and temptation threaten to ruin Jim and Marsha’s marriage.

Compared to ‘dentity Crisis, Wanda’s Visit is much more grounded in reality which shows in Durang’s very funny, but also genuine marital dialogue between Jim and Marsha.

And the couple really stands out thanks to Laberge and Gellatly who are a great pairing.

Laberge is fantastic in delivering Marsha’s sharp remarks and pent up frustration which occasionally slips out over the course of the play. Gellatly is entertaining as the bumbling husband who tries to satisfy both his wife and this mad woman who wedges herself between them. And together, they share this relaxed chemistry that is simply a joy to watch.

Wanda, on the other hand, is an atrocious character whose despicable behavior as a guest grates on our nerves. And Durang leaves it that way until the very end where finally, something interesting happens. Until that point, the audience is stuck with a joke that stops being funny within the first 10 minutes.

Feigs does her best with the given material, but even her performance runs a bit stale.

How does !Duranged! stand as a whole package? Durang’s strange sense of humour may not be for everyone, but there is something about this selection of plays that is just fun. The whole evening is a lively theatrical experience fueled by slapstick and chaos. And yes, there are issues with both the plays and the production itself, but the evening has an indescribable charm to it.

Ultimately, Theatre’s BSMT !Duranged! is a curious evening of two plays that will certainly leave an impression on audiences.

*This review is based off a preview performance.

Theatre BSMT’s !Duranged! runs at the Motel Theatre inside the EPCOR Centre from Dec 10 – 20, 2014.

For more information about the show and how to purchase tickets, visit: