Chicago Theater Review: WILD BOAR (Silk Road Rising)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 19, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


They’re always eager to alert Chicago audiences to dangerous developments here and abroad: Silk Road Rising is a committed company which tells tales not usually seen on conventional stages. Their presentations, usually set in the Middle East and—significantly—here, sound a kind of stage siren for suffering, exposing racism, hypocrisy, xenophobia, sexism and false standards of citizenship.

Comparatively few Silk Road dramas have been set in south Asia—until this U.S. premiere of Wild Boar, a 2012 work commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Festival. (It has been translated by Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith and adapted by David Henry Hwang.) A member of Artists Action, Candace Chong is a driven writer who fights press censorship (and self-suppression as well) through the theater’s varied powers of exposure.

Both a tangled love story and a protest play, Wild Boar is far from an empty offering. But at times its highly expository character development conflicts with its much more direct—and sometime sidetracked—indictments. Not always clearly pursued, Chong’s goal is to depict a futuristic Hong Kong where massive and unequal urban “renewal” requires shackling the media and erasing opposition.

Much like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, director Helen Young’s Théâtre Noir hints at mysterious power grabs by unseen greedsters. Appropriately this tale of real-estate scandals and pernicious propaganda is played against giant video walls depicting the skyscraping cityscape of a densely populated metropolis. The focus is on a new newspaper, created overnight as a voice of dissent. A much-respected veteran journalist, the keeper of an archive about the historical city, has mysteriously disappeared. Secretly deleted, newspaper columns are being replaced by blank space. Financial pressure from advertisers is creating its own “soft” silencing of opinion.

“Hidden clues,” as in secretive posters, point to an insidious government plan to create a “perfect city” of concentric circles (with the poor outliers serving the inner circles of the rich); an “underground city” will also house the proletariat servant class. It’s up to a few plucky and embattled journalists to bring the truth to light.

These are publishers Ruan, a distinguished independent editor (F. Karmann Bajuyo), and his intrepid (but now separated) wife Tricia (Christine Bunuan). Assisting them is Yam, a techno wiz and sometime-hacker (Fin Coe), and Johnny (Scott Shimizu), a maverick, sometime womanizing, reporter with unquenchable idealism and a contempt for cant. This adventure-seeker finds himself surrounded by creeping corruption. It peaks when Ruan is shot, either by a government agent or a poor person furious that he’s interfering with the city’s inevitable development.

No question, Wild Boar (its title referring both to a Hong Kong wild pig and these rebels against corporate corruption) raises timely issues—fake news, media manipulation, net neutrality, the co-option of freedom fighters. The play is not afraid to question whether the self-appointed protectors of freedom of speech always have the interests of the oppressed at heart or in mind. A bit coyly, Chong even makes us wonder if the abducted professor really exists.

But Chong can’t resist lumbering her two-hour drama with increasingly irrelevant back stories crammed with distracting, retrospective revelations, small talk, and cutesy byplay. Office dynamics and romance, particularly a cliched love triangle linking Tricia, Ruan and Johnny, get attention that, siphoning momentum, outweighs the quest for accountability that fuels the action.

Shimizu’s likable Johnny is a contagiously charming crusader, however, well matched by Bunuan and Bajuyo as much-tested fighters of the fourth estate. Likewise, Emily Marso effectively portrays outsiders who entangle the supposed good guys. It’s not the fault of five fine (but, on opening night, occasionally stiff) actors that the play gets in their way: We learn too much we don’t need to know about the characters’ past and present love lives—and not enough about the clandestine government scheme to use architecture to imprison the island’s inhabitants.

By play’s end a sinister new high rise (seen continually under construction) called the News Building is about to open. Will it be a shelter for the city’s constructive critics or a conduit for official lies and obfuscation? That’s as much resolution as Chong chooses to give her crises. Perhaps that’s to encourage the audience to also resist the powers that shouldn’t be. Are you a wild boar or a tame sheep?

photos by Airan Wright

Wild Boar
Silk Road Rising
Historic Chicago Temple Building
77 W. Washington St. Lower Level
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 4
ends on December 17, 2017
for tickets, call 312.857.1234 x 201
or visit Silk Road Rising
or Wild Boar the Play

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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