Any schoolroom veteran knows that history is best understood through the personalities and forces that shaped it, not through textbooks. Co-authors May Sun and Guy Giarrizzo grasped the first half of this idea, and lost the second half for their performance work, "The Chinese Chess Piece."
Few events, at least by advance word, seemed to fulfill the festival's Pacific Rim ambition and vision as much as the Sun/Giarrizzo collaboration. It would be an encompassing view of three generations of Chinese women in the Old and New Worlds, as their passionate fortitude breaks centuries-old patriarchal chains.
The Sun/Giarrizzo set, in the Hollywood United Methodist Church gym, suggests something epic. The audience faces itself on opposite sets of bleachers, across a large chessboard stage. Center stage is a woman (named A Dreamer and played by Sun) lying on a platform in the middle of a pool. Flanking both ends are sets of poles with banners decorated with chess figure faces.
Not exactly chess pieces, but manageable props for the three actresses playing the women whom Dreamer imagines. Her voice fades in underneath Nathan Birnbaum's gorgeous music.
Then, banality takes over. If ever the term stick figures applied to characters, "The Chinese Chess Piece" is an unfortunate model.
Communist leader Gong Peng (Jing Hong Zhang) is "out of time, ancient and modern, warrior and sage." Movie star Anna May Wong (Marilyn Tokuda as young Anna, Beulah Quo as older Anna) is "China doll, dragon lady, slave girl." Aviatrix Katherine Cheung is "the Chinese Amelia Earhart."
As portraits, these barely qualify as pencil sketches. The text is steeped in textbook facts, as if facts alone can sum up these obviously complex women. When the text gets dramatic, it is pilot Cheung proclaiming, "I am an eagle! I soar! I am as free as the wind!"
We never see this soaring, and little else, from the biographies. This is strange, considering Sun's visual prowess. Margaret Anne Dunn's lights and Terence Tam Soon's period costumes help, but the sense of a dreamscape is as far as a distant homeland.
One coup de theatre : the turbulent dancing of Jing, formerly of the Beijing Opera Theatre. Her climactic sword dance--twin blades whipping over and between each other--holds more meaning about the conflict of culture and self than any spoken moment.
When Jing does speak, her thick accent works for her Chinese Maoist. Tokuda's range is impressive, but Quo can't instill the facts with emotion. It's surprising, since her Anna rails against Hollywood stereotyping and praises the theater for giving her a chance to play real characters. The irony of the "Miss Saigon" casting flap looms over this like a bitter joke, but "The Chinese Chess Piece" never really makes the connection.