Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Silk Road"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark


"The Silk Road"

by Michael Arner and Stacie Green
Directed by Stacie green

Costumes by Lisa Stetor & Doris Chu
Lighting by Cyrano Parent & Matt Holthaus
Stage Manager Sara Arlin
Dance Choreography by Jen Scxhoonover
Musical Director Ron Anthony Grassi
Set Design by Sandy and Jay Green & Jesus MacLean
Make-up by Amal Joury

Bai Qian Yin.................................Michelle Aguillon
Leslie Warren..........................Joseph Zamparelli, Jr.
Davis Suther.........................................Doug Halsey
Julia Lavoisier.................................Giuliana Lonigro
Li Xiao Mei...........................................Yoko Honjo
Zhou Ling-Ling................................Kristie Lumakin
Wu Chusheng.......................................Patrick Wang
Helena Warren.................................Susan R. Woods
Chen Jun-Li...............................................Alex Chen
Nightclub Pianist..................................Ronald Grassi
Nightclub Singer....................................Stacie Green
Coctail Waitress.....Julie Dapper or Jessica Van Daam


For their first professionally-staged play, Michael Arner and Stacie Green chose a good company and assembled an excellent cast. "The Silk Road" is an ambitious attempt to capture that period between the '20s and the '30s when China opened its mind to the West and when the profligate artistic flowering of silent cinema blundered into the crude possibilities of sound. The terse, dense and evocative dialogue hints rather than explains the intertwined lives of half a dozen solidly individual characters, leaping about in time, picking out significant highlights in a cinematic theatrical style. Though under-rehearsed and under-directed, the potentials of this big-canvas project come to life on the stage.

The story revolves around Lesley Warren (Joseph Zamparelli, Jr.), an impulsive, autocratic, inspired creator of silent films in the Von Stroheim mold come to China to make his best but unexpectedly last great movie. He brings with him all the technical and artistic techniques of Hollywood --- where musical-beds and career-moves are so merged they are barely noticed. Warren is the kind of director who, in shooting take twenty-six of a ten-second scene of a man rushing into a room, can yell "Cut! Do it again!" and then whisper to the camera-man "I think he's finally as tired as I want him to look; put film in the camera this time." Act one is largely a character-study of this charismatic, complicated man.

China is represented in its complications by four different characters here --- one the Chinese film director and later Communist watchdog of party doctrine Wu Chusheng (Patrick Wang), who recognizes Warren as a creative, and therefore dangerous, genius. --- and three of them women acting in Warren's movie. Two serve as a kind of chorus --- traditional Chinese actresses critically assessing their director, and the West. Neither is particularly impressed, though one responds to the ease with which western cinema can make someone a world-famous star.
[* See apologetic footnote below.]

Bai Qian Yin (Michelle Aguillon) is the one Chinese actress who does ride western Cinema to world-famous, though brief, stardom. Her career mirrors that of Anna Mae Wong who starred in Douglas Fairbanks (Senior)'s masterpiece "The Thief of Baghdad" only to fade in the onslaught of talkies. In this play Qian Yin misunderstands her talent, and all to quickly gives it to an inferior director on the rise.

The dizzying sensibilities of silent-era Hollywood are here represented by another triad. Davis Suther (Doug Halsey) is the director's cameraman/producer/gofer/acolyte who recognizes his genius but can't equal it. And he is opportunist enough to steal his actress and turn his back on him when the simpler, more profitable talkies win the day.

And there are two women. Julia Lavoisier (Giuliana Lonigro) is a crassly practical starlet-type who coldly advises the Chinese star to choose Suther over Warren, because genius may create art, but it's expensive and chancy to hitch your wagon to one. (Lonigro's cheek-bones alone, given the right cameraman, would have made Pola Negri look like chopped liver.) And there is Helena Warren (Susan R. Woods), wife of the genius, who overlooks the flings he feels necessary for his art. She has a set-piece speech in the ashes of act two drunkenly admitting she has never felt a part of the show-biz community at all.

The Asia Onstage/Chinese Cultural Institute that produced this play has developed a distinctive style. They take nothing into the big bare black-box of their stage except the essential minimum props, excellent costumes, and fine acting. Here sultry bare-backed '20s ball-gowns make shoulderblades as eloquent as cheek-bones, and actors in Western or Eastern garb indeed represent two converging worlds. Here a tripod creates a sound-stage and a sofa and an end-table define a room, but only with the precisely chosen tea-service that goes on it. This style forces attention to the acting where it should be --- though in a play playing hopscotch with time this can make the "whens" a bit imprecise.

This is an excellent cast featuring many of the best actors in Boston, which is important because co-author Stacie Green never had enough time to get down to directorial details. She is lucky that the characters are all strong, individually complete personalities and their relationships to one another clearly defined, so each actor has a lot to work with. But there are several long speeches that have no inner shape where actors are running on raw talent rather than insight, and speeches and scenes that have bite yet don't fit into a recognizable whole. It would probably take weeks of intensive work to bring these details into true.

And the play itself, intriguing as it is, will probably go through at least one more rewrite. China gets short shrift here at present, with even that pair of traditional actresses enviously eyeing the seductions of the West while never making a good case for the values of the East. And, structurally, the second act is less well and completely crafted than the first. The eclipse of genius that takes place is more talked about than demonstrated --- it happens not for any obvious reasons, but merely because, for plot purposes, it has to.

It would be disappointing if the authors took the easy way out and sold this as a screenplay. The dialogue is much too quick, incisive, and knowing for that. Many scenes end with a solid blackout-line, but these are not "cuts" so much as precise punctuations for the play's stage life. And its characters are alive onstage in a way that celluloid shadows can never attain. It remains unfinished, but as a play about the making of movies, this is a very good beginning.

Love,
===Anon.

[* Apologetic Footnote : The Chinese names here are hard for a round-eye to keep straight with just the ears. I am certain Kristie Lumakin played Zhou Ling-ling, who yearned for stardom, but whether Yoko Honjo as Li Xiao Mei or Alex Chen as Chen Jun-Li played the other actress, or played the put-upon actor depicting the Emperor in the film-within-a-play so well, I no can say. Apologize, so-sorry-wise, for face-loss of such large proportion. ===L.S. ]


"The Silk Road" (till 16 May)
ASIA ON STAGE/CHINESE CULTURAL INSTITUTE
The New Tremont Theatre, 276 Tremont Street, BOSTON
1(617)524-4599

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