The Chairman's Wife': Her Life Story

There are a dozen characters in Wakako Yamauchi's new play "The Chairman's Wife" (opening Wednesday at East West Players): Madame Mao, her parents, her first love, a Shanghai critic, Chou En-lai, the founders of the Cultural Revolution, a couple of prison guards--but no Chairman Mao. "This is the story of Jiang Qing," stressed the writer. "I felt if I put Mao in it, it would not be her play."

Like Henry Ong's 1989 "Madame Mao's Memories" (which re-opened this weekend at Theatre/Theater), Jiang Qing's setting is prison--as it has been in real-life for the last dozen years since Mao's death. But unlike the presentation in Ong's play, Yamauchi's "Chairman's Wife" never directly addresses the audience: "She mutters to herself, to guards, has people come in from the past and talks to them." Also, Ong's play is a solo outing; Yamauchi's is a seven-actor production.

"I've written it from her point of view," added the writer ("Memento," "And the Soul Shall Dance"). "I wanted the audience to understand what kind of person she is by her dialogue--and at the same time come to their own conclusions about her. So I tried to be her as I wrote. I'm a pacifist, you know. But I tried to understand where she was coming from: what happened in her early life, what shaped her. Being a political woman, especially in that era, was very difficult."

East West Players artistic director Nobu McCarthy directs Karen Huie as Jiang Qing. Visual artist Gronk has designed the sets; Terence Tam Soon the costumes.

TOUCHY-FEELY: Denial is the key word in Daniel Faraldo's "How Does It Feel?" (opening Thursday at the Gnu Theatre in Toluca Lake), a story of two sisters keeping the lid on a family secret. "The sisters are from a very Anglo-Saxon family in Hyannisport, a family to whom nothing bad ever happens--and there's a great ability to cover up," noted the writer-actor, 40. "One is now 17, the other 25. And the younger one is just coming out of a mental hospital."

It was his own car crash a couple of years ago that prompted the Argentine-born Faraldo to embark on the play. "There was a tremendous amount of pain and emotion in me that wanted to come out," he recalled. "I knew there was something wrong, but it took the accident to understand it better. I hadn't been looking at life deeply enough; I was working on a minimum of information. So I went into a period of real reflection. Then I met a girl who'd had a traumatic childhood. And I took the theme, 'What can denial cover?' "

THEATER BUZZ: When Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company opens next Sunday at the Taper, look for one of the cast members to be a little unsteady on his feet. Richard Briers, who plays the title role in "King Lear" and Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," broke his right foot five weeks ago "in an unglamorous fashion--tripping over a step at home," said company administrator Iona Price. The actor has been performing in a plastic surgical boot, which is scheduled to be removed Jan. 22.

CRITICAL CROSS FIRE: The five-person comedy revue "Sony and Shares" is the latest offering at Santa Monica's Second City Theatre. Steven Kampmann directs.

In The Times, Dan Sullivan noted the youthful audience "whooped a lot--the new way to show that you got the joke. As an old Second City watcher, I was disappointed. Not hugely so. (The actors) are fluent and attractive performers, and each sketch made its little point. But where's the beef?"

Griped the L.A. Weekly's Steven Morris: "The best skits are merely cute; the worst, mean-spirited. But mostly the aim is blurred, with the comic darts falling somewhere in the cracks between parody and satire . . . Delighted at their own smug cruelty, Second City's attacks are directed at the obvious for no impassioned reason."

Disagreed the Reader's Joel Levy: "The mild satire aims primarily to entertain rather than to bite. Devoted cynics and iconoclasts will be disappointed, but the show is undeniably funny. The performers are wonderful, attacking even the weakest material with such commitment and comic imagination that a flat moment rarely occurs."

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