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A CurtainUp Review
The Peccadillo Theater Company in collaboration with the Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America has revived John Colton's The Shanghai Gesture, the 1926 Broadway sensation that was repeatedly censored for graphic sexual content and language. I looked forward to seeing the play Theatre Magazine once called "stupid and offensive to the point of turning your stomach," the play whose film version (Josef von Sternberg 1941) achieved cult status for its ridiculous dialogue and Ona Munson's crazy headgear. It was warned in the Times that this new, uncut version would include passages considered too scandalous for its original run.
Interest piqued by advance press, I expected an evening of high camp and misdemeanors! But what was actually staged is a reserved, revisionist reading, un-shocking, with no graphic sex or salaciousness, and an understated political agenda with an eye on political correctness for Asian communities.
Revised and significantly shortened by Joanna Chan, it is intended to be "an allegory of Mother China exacting revenge on the foreign powers that have humiliated her." The program notes explain that "her vengeance resembles that of subject people who revolt against the imperialists who have exploited them." Mother God Damn (Jade Wu) invites English, French and Italian high-ranking guests to a Chinese New Year's Eve banquet, as it is a tradition to settle debts at this time. She has invited those who have "had a piece of China." Guests include Sir Guy Charteris (the handsome Richard Bekins), a man who once left her pregnant, unawares, and sold her into a kind of whore-slavery, although all this is not made completely clear.
Mother long ago began to set this trap for him, and on this evening a key piece of the revenge puzzle arrives. It is Poppy (played brightly by Camilla Enders), an attractive young English thing with a penchant for a Chinese Prince, and a supposed addiction to sex and drugs, although this angle is significantly underplayed. She has a shocking secret, of which she is unaware—mixed blood! After the banquet, the long-schemed revenge is accomplished, but in the final moment of the play, Mother God Damn takes no pleasure in her victory and regrets her success.
Brian Linden gives a remarkable, attuned and nuanced performance as Caesar-Hawkins, essentially Mother God Damn's servant, and there is a very creditable character/cameo performance by Janie Kelly. Surprisingly, little action takes place on the stage beyond talk, flower girl dances, and the banquet. Possibly steamy or nefarious scenes are only implied, and there is nothing gruesome to fear a la Titus Andronicus, for instance. Not all themes of the play are fully developed. For example, a rather important father/daughter angle is down-played to the point of not mattering.
The fine Jade Wu as Mother God Damn delivers a glittering and impressive, if brittle performance, exactly as called for by the script. This is great until you need to feel for her in the end when her softer side emerges, too little too late.
The tiny little space of the Bank Street Theatre is utilized well. Where the original play had elaborate sets, one simple set is ideal for this production, as are the scaled down set decoration and sensible costumes (unless you are disappointed by the lack of high camp). Although this is not a musical, there are moments where the three flower girls dance quite enchantingly. A final dance in white masks is somber and effective. A lone flute-type instrument played by Qinghua Zhang accompanies the production.
In our current climate of pc, Hairspray is less Waters, and Debbie, who once did Dallas, has gone mainstream. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that in the Shanghai Gesture an enslaved girl (important to the plot) wears a discreet bodysuit within a context where nudity would be entirely appropriate. The production sanitizes itself in the absence of censors.
There is a long and noble tradition of airing political ideas in theater, but this little play needs to deliver more if it is to come across as a political statement; or it needs a completely different approach to come across as retro fun. Unfortunately, when you're not playing something like this for camp or sensation, as hinted in the naughty pre-press, what's left to deliver is a serious revenge melodrama. Comparison to plays written in the Seneca-Kyd tradition are then tacitly invited, and this play is not in that league. It might have been better to exploit its peculiarities and ancient censorship history and play it for anachronistic laughs. Would that stops had been pulled out! If only it were either much hokier or much more political.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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