Theater Review: THE CHINESE MASSACRE (ANNOTATED) (L.A. – Atwater Village)

by Tony Frankel on April 30, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

Post image for Theater Review: THE CHINESE MASSACRE (ANNOTATED) (L.A. – Atwater Village)

THE WILD, WILD BRECHTIAN WEST

The Chinese Massacre (Annotated), Tom Jacobson’s rousing new play, is like a fun day at Disneyland. Jacobson chronicles the 1871 lynching of 18 Chinese men by a mixed-race mob, historically considered to be Los Angeles’ first race riot. Actors break the fourth wall by expounding on exposition and commentating on chaos, thus the “annotated” in the title. With 14 astounding actors playing over 30 parts, the characters’ contrapuntal conversations can be cacophonous, and the masterful dialects are sometimes unintelligible, but this hugely theatrical historical interpretation is an imaginative, sprawling epic that captivates and charms. With actors popping up and down like shooting gallery targets, gunfights, reenactments of the past, delicious historical tidbits, and clever, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) is a theatrical Frontierland – but better. You won’t see mass murder, syphilis, and herb-induced abortions at the Happiest Place on Earth.

The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) by Tom Jacobson at The Circle X Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre in Atwater VillageIt is 1891, twenty years after the riot, and Lee (a somber West Liang) arrives at the parlor of Reverend Crenshaw (a grungy Silas Weir Mitchell) to purchase a preserved finger, presumably a remnant of the massacre; a “chinky pinky,” the Reverend calls it. Immediately, an annotator announces that the play will be periodically interrupted to remind you that you are watching a carefully edited story rather than actual history – a device to keep you emotionally detached, such as was achieved in Bertold Brecht’s “Epic Theatre.” While action bounces back and forth between the parlor and the events leading up to the massacre, Jacobson weaves a ripping-good yarn that ultimately becomes a very moving tale about two Chinese immigrant brothers who meet resistance in a town that, although dripping with diversity, is unreceptive to “Mongolians.”

The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) by Tom Jacobson at The Circle X Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre in Atwater VillagePerhaps I’m a sucker for American history, and the way we keep replacing one “ism” with another (look at the controversy regarding Muslim Mosques), but the weaving of genuine historical records – i.e., census reports and newspaper accounts – with fanciful dialogue was simply fascinating, not to mention palatable. Some may scoff that this shocking material should be presented with more “respect and dignity”, but Jacobson’s avoidance of sentimentality and heavy-handed provocation actually makes the subject matter that much more compelling. Who needs a stuffy professorial didacticism? Chinese Massacre left me with a respectful awe of history, and a suffused glow usually reserved for National Park Rangers who interpret history before a roaring campfire.

The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) by Tom Jacobson at The Circle X Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre in Atwater VillageCommon production techniques in epic theatre include a simplified, non-realistic scenic design (Sibyl Wickersheimer) offset against a selective realism in costuming (Dianne K. Graebner) and props (Michael O’Hara). Director Jeff Liu took advantage of the spanking new Atwater Village Theatre by filling every inch of the multi-leveled set (you may wish to sit farther back from the action as Liu’s panoramic direction turns the stage into 70MM theatre). Thomas Ontiveros creates a number of playing areas with his sharp and inventive lighting design. Every theatre producer should note Dennis Yen’s sound design: it IS possible for gunshots to be completely realistic without the use of deafening blanks (it also helps that stage manager Katherine E. Hann calls cues like a master gunslinger). With the author’s desire that actors change costumes before our eyes, the outfits still manage to be authentic (although they do look very clean).

The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) by Tom Jacobson at The Circle X Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre in Atwater VillageThe actors, who pick up cues with the speed of a prairie wildfire, are uniformly great. Elizabeth Ho is heartbreaking as a woman who is forced into an arranged marriage with Lee Tong (also Mr. Liang). Lisa Tharps is commanding as Biddy Mason, a former slave and midwife. Ryun Yu, Warren Davis, Johanna McKay, Jack Sochet, Gary Patent, Richard Azurdia, Anna Douglas, Jully Lee, Alex Levin and Ross Kurt Le all deserve mention for dexterously handling a multitude of roles and some tricky accents (astounding work by dialect coaches Tracy Winters and Tuffet Schmelzle).

The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) by Tom Jacobson at The Circle X Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre in Atwater VillageThe only task ahead for Jacobson is to clean up the scenes where many characters speak at once, making the dialogue indecipherable. It’s a great device that should be saved for a one-time effect, but will probably make most audiences addlepated. In any event, high-tail it over to The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) – it is a thrill ride that manages to be fun and entertaining even as it educates.

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Shane William Zwiener

The Chinese Massacre (Annotated)
scheduled to close May 22 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://www.circlextheatre.org or call 323.644.1929

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