Chicago Theater Review: THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 27, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

OUT OF THE COUNTRY AND OUT OF LUCK

Seldom has a title been more ironic: The World of Extreme Happiness, specifically the booming factory city of Shenzhen in urban China, is definitely extreme. You feel it in the particular pain endured by the rural poor who flock there, hoping to change or make their fortunes. But between 1992 and 2012, pivotal years of economic transformation for the Celestial Kingdom, happiness is as elusive for the ironically named Sunny as fair pay and workers’ rights in this Communist anti-Paradise. When she turns that pain into petitions and protest, it only, if possible, doubles.

Donald Li (James) and Jodi Long (Artemis) in the world-premiere production of The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig at Goodman Theatre

Written by Asian-American playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and co-produced by Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club, this cautionary two-act chronicle is persuasively staged by Eric Ting. It fully fleshes out the ugly gap between China’s country folks and ways and the cities where these unwanted hordes become refugees in their own land. The self-displaced peasants find themselves disrespected to the point of poverty—the very plight they left behind.

Frances Jue (Gao Chen) and Donald Li (Li Han) in the world-premiere production of The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig at Goodman Theatre

As with Brecht’s epic Chinese parable The Good Woman of Szechwan, dirty details both particularize and, paradoxically, universalize this single girl’s coming of age. Sunny (Jennifer Lim, fully executing a killer role) is one of millions straddling the rural-urban divide (or, as it’s called here, “apartheid”) that plagues China even more than here. Her inauspicious birth in 1992 seems to carry a curse for twenty years. Unwanted and unplanned, she’s dropped in a slop bucket by a father (Donald Li) who prefers racing pigeons to feeding girls. Showing her independence early, she is left to die but won’t. Two years later, after the birth of her brother Pete, her mother dies. Soon the father all but evicts her, preferring the son to remain behind to farm and fester.

Jennifer Lim (Sunny) and Francis Jue (Old Lao) in the world-premiere production of The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig at Goodman Theatre

Sunny finds miserable work in Jade River’s Price Smart factory, cleaning toilets for twelve hours a day. Her capacity for cleanliness hardly guarantees promotion. So, influenced by another aspiring toiler (Jo Mei), Sunny turns to self-help affirmations, appearing on a TV show run by a shyster named Mr. Destiny (Francis Jue). This devious motivator preaches a cold-blooded, blame-the-victim gospel that, conveniently for the powers that be, emphasizes personal reform rather than the social kind. Desperate for promotion, Sunny agonizes over her self-image, practicing strategic smiles, appropriate eye contact, even the stray hand job to impress her hardhearted supervisor.

Despite her credo to advance “by any means necessary,” Sunny gets used in all directions: She’s coerced into a “ghost marriage” with the deceased son of a calculating and inconsolable mother (Jodi Long). She’s hired by the vice president of the factory’s conglomerate to star in “Factory Girl,” a reality TV series. (It’s propaganda to counter the many suicides that have given the corporation bad publicity overseas.)

Ruy Iskandar (Ran Feng) in the world-premiere production of The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig at Goodman Theatre

But, strangely enough, becoming a spokesperson for the faceless factory radicalizes this unhappy janitor. Sunny finds herself becoming like the Monkey King: a deft shape-shifter and spellbinder who finally proves her worth by assuming a scary new identity. When she impersonates a grateful peasant happy to be a modern slave at Jade River at a phony PR event in, of all fateful places, Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Sunny suddenly becomes, well, both a modern Mulan and modern martyr.

Jo Mei (Ming-Ming), Jennifer Lim (Sunny) and Francis Jue (Mr. Destiny) in the world-premiere production of The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig at Goodman Theatre

Along with sharing the sad saga of Sunny, Cowhig covers a lot–perhaps too much—in these 135 minutes, including a secret-police interrogation investigating counter-revolutionary agitation, political kidnappings, a very protracted unsuccessful suicide by a worker girl whose self-affirmations weren’t quite enough, even a son trussed up in a peddler’s cart by his mother to keep him from joining a protest march. The play threatens to become its own reality-TV docudrama.

Jo Mei (Ming-Ming) and Jennifer Lim (Sunny) in the world-premiere production of The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig at Goodman Theatre

But, no question, what works here are the repeated shocks as the unfamiliar suddenly becomes too familiar. This creepy déjà vu fuels The World of Extreme Happiness through all its cascading extremities. Fully prosecuting Sunny through all her doomed and wishful living, Cowhig spares us no ugly revelations. The challenges and contradictions that erupt when ex-farmers clash with city slickers are hardly China’s alone; neither are the dead-end jobs and cultural condescension that fuel strikes and worse. This American-based plays may not change anything here or there–but, as Miller said with passive power, “attention must be paid.”

photos by Liz Lauren

The World of Extreme Happiness
Goodman Theatre
Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
scheduled to end on October 12, 2014
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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