Silk Road Rising. By Christopher Chen. Directed by Joanie Schultz. With Karmann Bajuyo, Melissa Canciller, Kroydell Galima, Mia Park, Joseph Sultani, Hannah Toriumi. Running time: 1hr 50mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
There are some interesting ideas engagingly staged in the second act of Christopher Chen's metatheatrical riff on Mao Zedong and the creation of art. It's a shame the first act is such a joyless slog. Chen follows a troupe of actors devising a play about Mao and the Hundred Flowers campaign, in which the Chinese Communist Party trapped dissidents by expressing a new openness to dialogue and dissent, then turned around and imprisoned or killed those who'd dared to show criticism. It was followed by the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the raids and violence that marked Mao's Cultural Revolution.
The five actors wander the theater, endlessly turning over ideas and passive-aggressively batting others' down in what one of them refers to as "our patented zeitgeist-congealing brainstorm." It's a setup similar to Jackie Sibblies Drury's We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero Of Namibia…, except unlike in that play, in which we see the actors researching the Herero and discovering history along with us, Chen's characters are already well-versed in their subject.
And so despite joking about how they can avoid sounding like a lecture, the way they relay information does exactly that. As for Chen's poking fun at a certain preciousness and pretension that can find its way into this kind of theatermaking—one actor's non-acting wife, present for the rehearsal, tosses out the idea of a reporter character to be a stand-in for the audience, and the troupe practically recoils at her "narrativism"—doesn't negate the actual tediousness of witnessing it.
Things go intriguingly pear-shaped in Act II, when we're taken five years into the future, and the group's play, The Hundred Flowers Project, has taken on a life of its own. Quite literally, it seems; it's grown into an amorphous, ever-changing organism in which its creators are seemingly trapped. But it's apparently been infected by that first-act suggestion of narrativism, as a reporter—who looks an awful lot like that wife, who up and disappeared five years earlier—finds herself shut in as well.
Here some of the theatrical ideas the troupe explored in the mostly naturalistic first half show up in unexpected ways: The idea that Mao's regime created its own history as it went means "a play of only beginnings," means perpetual present and no past; at one point the actor who's retained the most self-awareness seems to address his creator, Chen, directly.
And the trope of the cast being addicted to both their smartphones and theatrical technology for technology's sake manifests in the brainwashed actors now being at the mercy of the show's lights and video projections (impressively disorienting work by Sarah K. Hughey and Michael J. Stanfill respectively)—controlled by their own devices. But there's no effort to address the nature of what's happening in front of us—is it supernatural? Science fiction? Ghosts in the machines?
Chen and director Joanie Schultz hold their cards close to their chests, and the connection to Chinese Communism is murky at best. The Hundred Flowers Project is a collection of devices in more ways than one.