‘Chinglish’ at ArtsWest explores bilingual adventures in translation

Evan Whitfield (Daniel) and Kathy Hsieh (Xi Yan) in the ArtsWest Playhouse production of Chinglish. (Photo by Michael Brunk, courtesy of ArtsWest Playhouse.)
Evan Whitfield (Daniel) and Kathy Hsieh (Xi Yan) in the ArtsWest Playhouse production of Chinglish. (Photo by Michael Brunk, courtesy of ArtsWest Playhouse.)

The Seattle premiere of celebrated Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish” arrives at Seattle’s ArtsWest Playhouse this month.

“Chinglish” director Annie Lareau, who served as ArtsWest’s interim artistic director last year, was adamant about bringing the play to Seattle “[to give] Asian American actors an opportunity to perform in a very important play that wouldn’t have been done otherwise,” she said.

David Henry Hwang is a seminal playwright, and should be seen by audiences everywhere,” Lareau said. Hwang is best known for his play “M. Butterfly.”

“Chinglish,” a bilingual comedy that debuted on Broadway in 2011, follows Daniel, an eager Cleveland businessman and dishonored Enron executive, played in the ArtsWest production by Evan Whitfield. Daniel blunders through the complexities of doing commerce in today’s China.

With the help of a British expat translator, Daniel hopes to win contracts from the cultural minister of Guiyang, China to rebuild his family’s sign-making company.

“The comedy lies in the mistranslations, not only literally of the signs, but the interpretation of what people actually mean as opposed to the words they’re…saying,” Lareau said.

“Chinglish” is rife with failed translations. For instance, a sign for handicapped restrooms in Chinese becomes “deformed man’s toilet” in English. Daniel’s selling point is that his firm specializes in properly translated signage.

Many Meanings

The word Chinglish means “a mix of Chinese and English, sort of a bastardization of both languages,” Lareau said. But in terms of the play, Chinglish “means a coming together and a clashing of cultures.”

At the heart of the tale is the relationship that develops between Daniel and Xi Yan, the female vice minister of culture, played by Kathy Hsieh in this production. The two begin as adversaries and end up falling in love, Lareau said. Their relationship is “tumultuous, but very heartfelt at the same time,” she said.

Conflicts between Daniel and Xi abound, especially “in terms of cultural expectations, and business expectations, and relationship expectations,” Lareau said.

In Pursuit of Diversity

Lareau is dedicated to diversity, finding projects for diverse casts and increasing the diversity of artistic teams behind the scenes.

“When they hired me at ArtsWest, I was really clear that this was a passion of mine: to bring a more diverse cast and more diverse stories,” Lareau said.

And so she did. “Chinglish,” written by a Chinese American playwright, includes a cast of five Asian and two Caucasian actors (one American, one British), Lareau said.

For this show, Lareau also hired Chinese American set designer Carey Wong, who created the bright, classy office for “The Comparables,” currently playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Lareau has experience working with Seattle’s Asian American actors. In 2012, she adapted “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” Jamie Ford’s novel about a love story between a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl, for Book-It Repertory Theatre. Lareau directed the play as well.

“That required a cast of 26 people,” Lareau said. “About 20 of them were Asian Americans.”

Lareau doesn’t speak Chinese, so a big challenge of directing “Chinglish” is that about a quarter of the dialogue is in Mandarin, she said. Lareau grappled with “how to help actors find emotional truth in the tonality of a language I wasn’t familiar with.”

A Complete Role

Lareau praised Hsieh, the local actor that she cast in the bilingual role of Xi Yan.

“I think she’s wildly talented and underused,” Lareau said.

Hsieh said “Chinglish” is unlike most of the plays that she has been part of, adding that she treasures the role because she’s able to express herself in Mandarin.

“For the first time in my life, I’m actually able to show more of myself on stage than I ever have before,” Hsieh said. “In this role, I’m able to be the fullness of who I am as a human being — both Chinese and American.

“Chinglish” by David Henry Wang runs through March 29 at ArtsWest Playhouse, 4711 California Ave SW, Seattle; $15-$34.50 (206-938-0339 or artswest.org).

In Conversation Series

– Sunday, March 22: Talk-back with the actors of “Chinglish”

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