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A CurtainUp Review
The Shanghai Gesture
By Elyse Sommer
Since I did not write that 2002 review or see it, I can't compare it to the production by Mirror Company that I just saw. However, given that this is an 80-year-old theatrical curiosity best known via the sanitized 1941 film that changed the brothel setting to a gambling establishment, this is not a case of who's first to revive this, but whether it's worth digging out of theatrical attic. The answer is yes and no. Yes, if you mount it as a camp-y sendup shades of classic deconstructions like Speed Hedda by Robert Prior and his Fabulous Monsters or the late Charles Ludlum's Ridiculous Theater. (e.g. Speed Hedda and The Mystery of Irma Vep). No if you opt to do it more or less straight up which is the case for both the 2002 revival and the one now being shown.
Neither Marsha Sheiness's adaptation of Colton's 1928 script or Robert Kalfin's direction make this dated story of opium\ and sex addiction, vengeance, murder and repentance more than a pretty to look at museum piece. Still, Kalfin and his set, costume and lighting designers (Michael Anania, Gail Cooper-Hecht and Paul Hudson) deserve a shout-out for evoking the play's red-hot atmosphere of sex, drugs and Mother Goddamn's vitriol on the Julia Miles Theater's tight stage.
The two story set is peopled with a larger cast than you're likely to see in many a more high profile production. Ah, but there's the rub. Nice as it is to see such a large cast on any stage, there's no pleasure in size if it isn't matched by the quality of the performances. Alas, while this production has some okay performances, the same can't be said for the two leads. — Tina Chen as Mother Goddamn and Larry Pine as Sir Guy Charteris the British lover of her youth who sold her into sexual slavery to preserve his marriage and insure his future.
Since the play's action centers on a new year's banquet given by that abused young woman turned powerful Shanghai brothel doyenne to exact her revenge on Charteris's betrayal 20 years earlier, Mother Goddamn would be about 40 years old, if not younger. Though Chen's age is not listed anywhere, her resume is highlighted by her appearance in the 1969 movie Alice's Restaurant so it's fair to say that she's too old for this part. The age issue aside, she fails to be credible as a survivor version of Madame Butterfly. She also delivers the play's stilted dialogue at such a screaming pitch that one can't help worrying about her doing damage to her vocal chords.
As for Larry Pine, a usually fine actor, he just looks and acts uncomfortable in this role, especially when he occasionally takes a stab at a British accent. The interaction between Chen and Pine is so awkward that at times it actually feels like the camp-y take I think would have worked better than this straightforward if more explicit depiction of this late 20s Asian sin city (there's nudity as well as drinking and drugging). Chen's finale comes across so absurdly over-the-top that I found myself laughing several times when I know I wasn't intended to laugh.
When she's not too overwrought, Sabrina Veroczi is quite affecting as Poppy, the wild girl who'd rather be like Mother Goddamn than the well brought-up British girl her father wants her to be. However, her delivery also leans towards vocal endangering screaming. The most measured and convincing performance comes from Richard B. Watson as Mother Goddamn's British major domo.
As the program notes explain, John Colton grew up in Asia as the son of a diplomat and lived in Shanghai during the 1920s so that The Shanghai Gesture is based on his own observations on this cosmopolitan city, with its undercurrent of corruption and hypocrisy beneath the surface propriety of its international residents. The plot he concocted can be summed up to fit a Tweet: Pay-back time Banquet preparations. Mother Goddamn confronts hoity-toity friends at pay-back banquet. Ex-lover gets his comeuppance but revenge backfires. Sin-repent finale.
Most of the ensemble players don't have much to do. The brothel's girls for hire serve as an ever present chorus lingering around the winding stairs leading to the lower section which serve as Mother Goddamn's office, the dinner party, and bed chambers. Like the movie adaptation which has become a golden oldie cult hit mainly to see a gorgeous young Gene Tierney and soak up the atmosphere, the outfits and colorful surroundings in this The Shanghai Gesture upstage both the plot and the actors.