The Chinese Wall
Reviewed by Vanessa Cate
The Group Rep
Through March 11
The year is 220 B.C.E. (sort of), and the Emperor of China has a plan to build a great wall. Tzhin Zhe Huang Ti (Mark Atha), the “Son of Heaven”, is our Donald Trump stand-in, ridiculous hair and all. His wall might be more practical than our modern contemporary’s proposed Mexican border wall, but Swiss playwright Max Frisch disregards history in the making of this hodgepodge play. In real life, the Great Wall took many centuries to create and was used for protection from Mongolians raiders, barbarian invaders, and to protect and regulate travel and trade by way of the Silk Road.
Here, it’s reduced to the manifest whim of a narcissistic dictator.
The program describes the ‘place’ as 220 B.C., and the ‘time’ as “standing still.” Attending the Emperor’s celebration are such historical and literary figures as Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Don Juan and Romeo and Juliet. In attendance also is “Contemporary” (the name of the character, who is played by Patrick Skelton) — although he is not a contemporary of modern audiences, but rather of theatre goers of 1946 when the play was written, immediately after World War II.
Contemporary, our outdated Everyman, attempts to reason with those around him about the nature of war, and most specifically delivers warnings about the atom bomb. These dire forecasts go over most everyone’s head.
The play is overly long and very messy. The point of the original script is clear almost immediately, with nothing much new or exciting added during the slog. The thrust of director Larry Eisenberg’s vision is obvious almost as quickly, as the play becomes an exercise in how on-the-nose are the play’s comparisons with our own debauched ruler. Christian Ackerman’s projections of the president are funny, and Angela M. Eads’ costume design is inventive, but when combined with all of the added “alternative facts”, “you’re fired”, and “fake news” one liners, the satire becomes glaringly obvious and tiresomely repetitious.
The addition of so many random side characters from different eras does nothing much to serve the plot; moreover, most of these characters aren’t really seen at all after they’re first introduced. We do get to see more of Cleopatra (Gina Yates), but despite a seductive entrance, her character is diminished from a remarkable leader to a greedy trophy wife, feeding the Trump look-a-like grapes and fixing him cocktails.
Overall, the play does not favor its female characters. Mee Lan (Savannah Schoenecker) attempts to be progressive, and by 1946 standards she may have succeeded. But even as she declares that she no longer believes in princes, she instantly falls in love with Contemporary, and wonders who she might marry. Female sex is a villain here, as a sexualized Cleopatra is readily understood to be evil, and the good Mee Lan rejects sexual urges. These are outdated sentiments that nurture a Trumpian view of a woman’s place as opposed to a feminist stance.
After we endure this sloppy farce for almost two hours, the script adopts a serious tone, and the characters scold the audience outright. “Now it is you who are mute.” While a call to action is necessary at times (and very much so at times like these), the script did not earn the holier-than-thou attitude.
Still, as the Emperor looks to punish a mute named Wang (John Ledley) for being the “Voice of the People,” and as projections of the aftermath of the atomic bomb flash on the screen, a wake-up call for the masses is prescribed, in place of washing our hands of a difficult matter in the manner of Pontius Pilate.
Note: This production includes brief nudity.
The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; Performances Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m. and Sun. 2 p.m.; through March 11th; www.thegrouprep.com or 8