Knowing a language can put you on the road to understanding a culture, but it is not automatic or instant. Culture is such a tricky and complex thing. It is so tantalizing to get glimpses of it. For me, it is what drives me to travel.
Conveniently, you only have to go as far as the East Village for a taste of this. Michael Leibenluft’s production of Jeremy Tiang’s play Salesman 之死 is now playing at the Connelly Theater and language, culture, and theater get delightfully explored.
Salesman 之死 (literally translated as Death of a Salesman) is based on the true story of Arthur Miller (Sonnie Brown) traveling to Beijing in 1983 to direct a production of Death of a Salesman. It starred a Chinese cast including one of the leading actors of the Chinese stage, Ying Ruocheng (Lydia Li) who translated the play as well.
Shen Huihui (Jo Mei), a professor of American literature who had never been to America, got pulled in by Ying to interpret for the company as she wrote her dissertation on Miller’s play. She is at times the play’s narrator and whose journey the play focuses on.
Leibenluft’s production incorporates the history surrounding this 1983 production by using audio from Chinese theater productions and footage of this Chinese production as creative elements to further root the work in the specifics of the time and Chinese performance styles at play. Miller wrote a book on his experiences in China and this piece further draws from that and his observations for his time there working on this show.
With such a wealth of documentation, Tiang’s play has a richness to its characterizations, details and design.
As the company meets with Miller and begins rehearsals, things like the size of refrigerators, how to play football, and even what a salesman is are among the American cultural issues the cast are puzzled by. For Miller, he’s trying to get closer to a sense of “realism” in performance from the more gestural-style the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. On the flip side, the cast are worried he’s not washing the apples he’s eating every day and consuming too much insecticide. Local culture comes in all forms–even the poisonous.
In this fully bilingual production with supertitles in English and Mandarin, we are privy to these back-and-forths with even more clarity than Shen’s live translations as she races to keep up with Miller’s jokes or idiomatic expressions. But when everyone is talking over one another, all the languages are intentionally just a flurry of words and characters overlapping on the screens. Sometimes the world is like that.
At one point, Miller nixes the Designer Huang’s (Julia Gu) proposed blond American-style wigs and heavy contouring make-up to make the cast appear “white” and “American.” Miller says the audience can suspend their disbelief at everyone being Chinese in this production including a waiter at an Italian restaurant.
And we do as well with this all female, Asian cast playing multiple roles, male and female, including Miller and his wife Inge Morath. As is so often the case, this works without any mental gymnastics.
Sonnie Brown’s grumpy Miller is familiar in its scowls and gruffness. Julia Gu is the stooped and seasoned Designer Huang frustrated with Miller’s inability to understand the limited power supply the theater has. Then in an instant, Gu is Li Shilong, the actor performing Biff, banging on Willy Loman’s hotel room not knowing what lays in store for him there.
As the play tracks the rehearsals of the 1983 production, we watch as the cast find the rhythms of Death of a Salesman and begin to trust that the Chinese audience will follow without extra emphasis, gestures, or pauses.
When it clicks, Gu’s as Biff is heartbreaking as he tries to break-through to his father. Claire Hsu as Liu Jun playing Willy’s mistress has the fluttery-irritating laugh for the character down pat but when Miller calls upon her to be more intimate with Willy the step-by-step process to which she has to learn to drape herself on him is hilarious. Hsu’s “you want me to do what?” face was priceless.
The play is frequently funny as the characters understand and misunderstand each other. The gaps between cultures sometimes are so unexpected and amusing. I remember once trying to explain why I didn’t have a washing machine in my apartment in NYC attributing it to old plumbing to a man in Prague whose house was built in the 1600s and had a washing machine. These are the moments that you also have to reflect on your own culture when confronted by another one (Seriously why can’t I have a washing machine?).
The play’s greatest achievement is in communicating the emotional challenges these artists faced in 1983. There is such a joie de vivre in the production as everyone is so excited for the chance to do this piece, but, at the same time, these character have just lived through the Cultural Revolution and the scars are deep. So much has been lost in the interim years. Limited in their ability to put on shows (unless they were specific government approved Chinese operas), finally these actors are getting a chance at something new. But they are left to wonder if this the start of a new sense freedom or is it simply a blip which will again disappear? Will such a window of opportunity come again for them?
It imbues the whole show with a weight of something hefty and meaningful, well beyond Miller’s play and words. Urgency, hope, and fear get all blended together. What they are doing means something to each of the people on stage and it goes beyond theater.
For Shen, all this talk of America, leads her to see how much bigger the world is and she cannot help but want to experience it. For all the discomforts she is experiencing (living at the theater, away from her husband), Mei is beaming with a youthful giddiness of possibility. She wants to make the most of this chance and from there it snowballs into a whole new future for her.