ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
The World Of Extreme Happiness
By Elyse Sommer
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig is to be admired for the way she's managed to theatrically explore the multitude of forces at work in China since the cultural revolution. Most emotionally stirring is the fallout of the one-child policy— the desperate acts to which it drives parents yearning for male babies and the damage to the psyches of girls born to such parents.
Most enlightening is the way the playwright uses the one-child issue to create a picture of China's shift from a rural society to an industrial urban one. That new society and its laws fails to give support both the peasants migrating to it and those remaining in the rural communities where people work on hard scrabble farms or in health threatening coal mines.
Through Sunny the possibilities of this new China are on display here, but so is the awfulness of police and political oppression, exploitation of the poor and uneducated. The ruthless factory owner and Artemis Chang, his lover and executive of a partner company the manipulative vice-president (James Saito and Sue Hin Son) symbolize the downside of the marriage between communism and capitalism.
What's basically a simple girl's coming of age story is, shades of Brecht's Good Person Of Szechwan, is fitted within a larger framework that encompasses universal can-do mantra of the American dream. And as TV and cell phones have exposed Sunny to American pop culture and the vocabulary of , so most of us know Shenzhen, her city of hope, as a place where our cell phones and many other gadgets are manufactured.
Director Eric Ting skillfully shepherds the baker's dozen of characters from countryside to urban settings, from awful to hopeful — to super awful. All except Jennifer Lim convincingly and smoothly navigate two or three roles. Like the actors, Mimi Lien has created a multi-faceted environment that accommodates the various locations and scenes with great fluidity. Tyler Micoleau and Jenny Mannis enhance the visual ambience (he with his lighting, she with her costumes).
Even the grim beginning is infused with a touch of dark humor. Other light moments are sandwiched in between that and the pitch black end of Sunny's voyage to a better destiny. However, Mr. Ting can't really shake off the overarching darkness. That said, this is a rich, heart tugging and always absorbing story. The interweaving of one girl's odyssey with that of a whole nation in flux works well.
Jennifer Lim portrays Sunny with enough depth and shading to make the changes she goes through totally believable. When we first meet her she is all naive country mouse yet determinedly ambitious. She refuses to accept her menial factory job as a dead end, and is not too innocent to manipulate her supervisor into promoting her. And for all her personal ambition she's not just out for herself but uses her meager earnings to pay for her kid brother Pete (Telly Leung) to go to school and also escape their dreary birthplace.
Leung's Pete also typifies rebellious youths anywhere who undervalue education and pin their hopes on mostly unachievable dreams; in Pete's case, that's getting to play the role of "Monkey King" who is the Chinese equivalent of Batman and Superman.
James Saito segues with ease between the cold, nouveau riche factory owner James Lin and Sunny and Pete's father Li Han. As his cold, nouveau rich James Lin fails to be a humane employer, so Li Han neglects his fatherly responsibilities, leaving what he should be doing for the son he yearned for to the daughter he doesn't appreciate.
Another actor making the most of very diverse multi-role casting is the excellent Francis Jue. You'd be hard put to spot Old Lao, Sunny's, sour faced, play-it safe supervisor in the flamboyant Mr. Destiny, a crowd drawing preacher self-empowerment. The same is true of Jo Mei's portrayal of both Sunny's funny and poignant friend Ming-Ming and Qing Shu Min a chilling government official.
The first scene which almost put an end Sunny's story before it could begin is a shocker. But what happens after Sunny realizes her sudden opportunity to be a company spokesperson is a sham event leads to an even more harrowing finale between Sunny and Pete. However, it goes on a bit too long and feels too much like a forced bookend to the disturbing opening. Still, it's a forgivable flaw in a play that personalizes our insight into a world that has become part of ours mostly through the many "made in China" labels.
If you go, and I recommend that you do, be sure to read the helpful insert that walks you through details about the many issues you'll encounter in The World of Extreme Happiness.