The Chinese Lady

This is a reprint of my remarks about “The Chinese Lady” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater presented in their Stiemke Studio during the 2018 – 2019 season. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline on March 6, 2019!

Spoiler alert! I am putting that out front here just in case. I may not actually spoil anything but I don’t know how to tell my story about my experience with The Chinese Lady and have to worry about whether I am giving too much away!

Over the years I have always found the plays at The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stiemke Theater to be their most challenging and thought provoking each and every season. So I have made it a point to make sure I see all of them even when I can’t make the rest of the Rep’s season.

So it was with great expectations that I attended their presentation of The Chinese Lady and I am delighted with it. It’s based on a true story of the first female Chinese immigrant to the United States.  Afong Moy was brought here as a Chinese curiosity to demonstrate and display other Chinese curiosities, namely Chinese household items that the American public could purchase from her ‘employer’. And I have employer in parentheses because she was brought here under a ‘contract’ with her father with the intention she would return home. But instead she remained in America as a side show attraction for decades and it isn’t known if she ever returned to China.

The Chinese Lady only features two roles. Lisa Helmi Johanson as Afong Moy and Jon Norman Schneider as Atung. Atung is also in the employ of the American importers and acts as Ms. Moy’s interpreter and protector.

The Rep did away with the traditional stage in the black box theater and presents Ms. Moy in a giant version of a literal black lacquer Chinese box that Atung opens to expose the wonderful exotic items within. The box that will be her stage throughout and essentially her prison in life. A place where Americans pay to see the exotic woman and her exotic environs and her exotic traditions.

And the structure of the play works a bit differently too. Usually if a play features an aside, where a character speaks directly to the audience, it is usually to reveal a secret, fill in a fact, or progress the story further down the timeline. But in The Chinese Lady…most all of the play is an aside. Ms. May and Atung address the audience directly throughout most of the play. When they do speak to each other, those interludes act as the asides and expose those secrets or surprises or fill in context that they can’t provide directly to us…because they aren’t always known to each other until they are spoken.

One of the points where words have multiple meanings as we live through the play…early on Ms. Moy breaks the artifice of the stage by stating her dress wasn’t hers…her body wasn’t hers…which is true for the character…the physicality belongs to the actress although we are supposed to suspend disbelief and accept the character as real. But even the character experiences this dress isn’t hers…this body isn’t hers…it belongs to the importers who brought her from China. And it becomes even less her own possession as she ages and loses her native language skills, her memories of China, and the life she should have been able to forge for herself. It runs from hopeful to sad to tragic in the end.

And as she repeats rituals throughout, we watch Ms. Moy mature and turn from the hopeful 14 year old youth into a mature world wise woman. Ms. Johanson does an incredible job of portraying that growth and awareness beyond just the scenic and costume changes. And Mr. Schneider identifies his concurrent aging process without the benefit of a costume change. They both excel in their roles.

The playwright, Lloyd Suh has crafted a marvelous play where words carry meaning beyond their apparent message…particularly as other meanings come to light later in the play. And it is a play that speaks to today…but demonstrates that we didn’t get here in a vacuum and lays out that path that got us to 2019. It isn’t as pretty as we pretend it to be and the characters let us know that. My one quibble here…after fashioning a view of the world and an amazing play that tricks us down its own path…he sums up the ending too quickly, too forcefully, and of course too uncomfortably. But this is the one play this season that I intend to see again before it ends it run.

So…The Chinese Lady will be at the Stiemke through March 24…so there’s time to see it…but not that much time…so hurry! And there are NO bad seats in the Stiemke!!!


This is a reprint of my remarks about “Junk” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater presented on their main stage Quadracci Powerhouse during the 2018 – 2019 season. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline on January 28, 2019!

It’s been over a week since I saw Ayad Akhtar’s Junk at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and I have procrastinated on getting this reaction written. Shame on me.  This play was one of the two that I expected to be highlights of the current season. The other being August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.

The past two seasons I had seen Mr. Akhtar’s The Who & The What and Disgraced. These are both intimate plays built around struggles inherent in family, culture and religion. Well drawn characters and plots that twist unexpectedly…and no matter who is the seemed protagonist, you develop an empathy for everyone on stage. Both are true gems.

For Junk, Mr. Akhtar takes on a bigger broader slice of society. Here we see the inner machinations around Wall Street in the era of junk bonds. Instead of a small ensemble, we have 20 characters who are perfectly limned by the playwright. We hear the joy in the spoken word and the precision in language that I expected after seeing Mr. Akhtar’s previous plays. Very challenging indeed. But rather than family or culture or religion, the driving force here is greed…for every single character on stage…so you won’t come away with any empathy for any of the characters.

This play runs two hours without intermission which seemed odd to me at first. But the action is presented in little vignettes primarily presented on the empty Rep thrust stage in front of an imposing gray wall. The settings are each defined with the actors pulling out and then placing the necessary furnishings on stage…so we know if we are moving from a board room…to law office…to bedroom…or shop floor. The wall includes a number of balconies that also allow the actors to communicate within the play or allow Judy Chen to address the audience directly. But there can’t be an intermission. Each vignette adds to the storyline…adds to the stress…the plot accelerates as we go…and the playwright can’t allow you to take a breather or your anxiety level won’t match that of the action on stage at play’s end.

Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements directed this presentation. He couldn’t have done a better job of matching the actors to their characters. I never once felt that an actor didn’t quite fit or didn’t understand their relationship to the others. And he nailed the relationships in the play…he drove the action at the breakneck speed that the play required. Not a simple task given the number of scene changes and number of characters in the play.

One other difference between Junk and the other two Akhtar plays. In the earlier plays you left with some sadness but an understanding of the struggles involved. There we hope for a better future of sorts. In Junk, I left feeling distraught…that we as a society have learned nothing…and the last bit is perfect 20/20 hindsight foresight setting up the financial collapse from the housing bubble. So when I left the theater, instead of a feeling rewarded…there was just this sense of despair.


A Christmas Carol

This is a reprint of my remarks about “A Christmas Carol” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater presented in the historic Pabst Theater during the 2018 – 2019 season. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline on December 1, 2018!

It’s the 43rd Season for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s A Christmas Carol…once again lovingly presented at the Pabst Theater. And I haven’t seen it since my son was a child and I don’t remember that version particularly. But yes, this one is bigger than life, bigger than death, overdone, overplayed, overacted, overaccented, overemoted, totally over the top and all of us loved every minute of it. Jonathan Wainwright is incredible and credible as Ebenezer Scrooge…I can’t imagine anyone else doing it after seeing him perform last night. If he gets tired, I’d be willing to take over the role of Charles Dickens for him at the play intro. Other standouts in my eye were Jesse Bhamrah as Scrooge’s nephew, Debra Staples as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Mark Corkins as the Ghost of Marley. It was a particular thrill to hear and recognize the voices of two of my favorites, Ms. Staples and Mr. Corkins, before I recognized their faces in their costumes. It was wonderful to see you both again! And how can A Christmas Carol go wrong by performing my favorite Christmas carol, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!

But the real star is the set! It moves from street scene to office scene to street scene to bedroom scene to street scene and of course to all of the Christmases past, present and future. It is amazing. And the heroes that help make the set work is the lighting crew. My goodness how the mood moves and changes as the scenes shift and the play progresses through Scrooge’s transformation. Love it!!

I do have one quibble…I invented the word overaccented above. All of the characters speak in Dickensian period English. And 90% of the time that’s not an issue. But during the Christmas Future portion, a couple of cast members were unintelligible to me and I wasn’t that far from the stage in the orchestra seating. Partly garbled and partly too softly spoken…Scrooge was hearing it and he wasn’t happy…I wanted to hear it too!

This is truly a family event…the youngsters sitting in front of me were enjoying it more than I was…so take your family! And I will be a shill here…don’t wait to get tickets…particularly if you want Friday or Saturday night seats!!