Chicago Theatre Review
Cheep Goods in a Gorgeous Gown
The North China Lover
A note to storytellers: just because your tale has a love story, doesn’t necessarily render it important. In order to titillate, to capture our imagination, love stories need to transform their participants for better or worse, inspiring a chemical reaction that lashes out into the world around them. If you have two people, no matter how unlikely a pairing, just rubbing up against each other and keeping their interest on a dead baseline of Ennui listlessly strummed, you don’t have a story, just an incident.
Thus do I level a charge at Marguerite Duras authoress, heroine and narrator of the North China Lover, now adapted by Heidi Stillman for the Lookingglass stage. Duras’s story chronicles her first real love affair in 1930‘s Saigon when, as an impoverished School Girl she fell in with a wealthy Manchurian playboy. While the event itself, and the manner in which she novelized it, may have been a taut and profound, on stage her brisk way of pinning down and mummifying her memories, loses any vividness or urgency it might have had. The cross racial/social affair, usually an sure fire catalyst for audience soul searching or dramatic angst isn’t even the most particular quirk of the story: the novel might have easily been called The Boarding School Lover or The Brother Lover, for all the unaddressed sexual tension floating about. Duras’s intrigue, which by rights out to churn with frustration like a tidal pool instead churns with frustration like an enormous vat of pasteurized butter, regular as clockwork and largely unappetizing.
Stillman has done her level best to bring the very sensory and fragmented novel to the stage. She has given the narration to Marguerite, or M (Deanna Dunagan), herself who guides and helps populate the world where the Child (Rae Gray), M.’s younger self and the Lover (TIm Chiou) become obsessed with each other. Dunagan has some trouble working as narrator, waffling between describing the scene impartially as a writer and letting the mists of time waft her into her former state of emotional entanglement. She comes into her own when required to throw herself into the action onstage, addressing her phantoms, trying to peel back their future to come, to give them so warning, some solace. Our lovers are well molded to their rolls: Gray is pitch perfect as a battered and weary French Expatriate, with her deadpan stare and curdling voice, while Chiau draws attention to himself with his fumbling, apologetic manner, and soft spoken professions of violent affection. Either could have picked up their pace, their interest and ours, a bit more, but constrained by the morass of Saigon heat and French Prose, they prefer to plod along to a luxurious bed, then to a luxurious restaurant, then an awkward home life, and back again.
Since the story fails to inspire, I’m happy to say that lighting designer Dan Ostling paces it through a gorgeous array of light and shadow. His electronic works have a poetry of their own: he brings scenes forward from nothing, veils them in brightness, sets a location by simple quality of light or a falling shadow, constructing the phantom world more deftly than any rolling set piece could convey.
Looking at the poetry of light glide stately through the evening, with the play halting on behind it I consoled myself that perhaps, with time the North China Lover will stop stumbling over its bound feet, that Gray or Chiau or the rest of the cast will one evening have an epiphany, that the show will rise from its sick bed and shake like a spurned paramour turned up with its cardboard suitcase at our door one rainy night. I tend to doubt it though, and fear The North China Lover will remain cheep goods in a gorgeous gown, staring balefully out from the Lookingglass stage.
Not Recommended by Ben Kemper
Lookingglass Theater, 821 Michigan Ave
$36 a ticket.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.