Tough Mudder

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silk road hundred flowers projectIf you’ve been hanging out in these blog woods for a while, you know I’m never one to shy away from a challenging theatrical experience. Over the years I’ve cheered and rabble-roused for plays that many theatergoers, even those who go regularly, have been intimidated by – from Calixto Bieto’s madhouse take, a cross between American Horror Story and David Lynch’s nightmares, on Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre at the Goodman to Elevator Repair Service’s seven-hour Gatz which mixed an actor’s reading of the entire book of The Great Gatsby with scenes from the novel staged with office furniture and supplies at the MCA Stage.  Experimental theater? Bring it on. Abstract, inscrutable, ambiguous? Great adjectives. The power and beauty of these plays though lie in the fact that even if they’re difficult to comprehend or follow at first, they ultimately tell their stories and unveil their aspirations with clarity and insight.  That’s what you call craft and artistry, folks. I think there is craft and artistry in Christopher Chen’s bold but puzzling and ultimately unsatisfying The Hundred Flowers Project, now receiving a Midwest premiere at Silk Road Rising, which is also admirably one of the few Chicago theater companies that don’t shy away from provocative, boundary-pushing material.  Unfortunately though, despite all good ambitious intentions in attempting to tie together intriguing themes about Chinese history, the impact of social media on current society, and human beings’ propensity to create narratives to suit their self-interested purposes, Chen isn’t able to successfully convey why they should be tied together. The Hundred Flowers Project is a tough mudder of a play, straining the audience’s patience and endurance without really clearly communicating why.

The first act of The Hundred Flowers Project is set in a rehearsal room where a theater company of Asian-American actors are devising a play based on milestones of Mao Zedong’s rule, from the Hundred Flowers Campaign of the 1950s in which Chinese citizens were encouraged to speak out against the Communist regime which was then used to crush Mao’s opposition to The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s in which Mao’s regime eradicated all intellectuals and upended economic, political, and cultural life in China. It reminds me of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Make a Presentation…seen a couple of years ago at Victory Gardens in which a company of actors devise a play on the Namibian genocide during the German colonial rule in the late 1800s, a play I wasn’t too fond of. I’m not a big fan of these “meta” approaches to playwriting that these hot young playwrights employ because I think they reinforce the audience’s perception that theater is theater with a big T, the exclusive, elitist domain of too-cool-for-the-rest-of-us intellectuals. It also begs the question why use a theater company to advance your ideas instead of, say, a family or a government or one of the hundreds of other social structures we are familiar with? At the onset, Chen (as did Sibblie Drury) already distances the audience – how many of us have actually worked in a theater, much less devised a play? And this particular theater company in The Hundred Flowers Project is quite the tiresome, pretentious, intellectually smug group throwing around words and phrases like “zeitgeist”and “congealing”.  As the theater folks come up with ideas that are then immediately thrown out, we in the audience struggle to keep our interest. Chen’s writing isn’t particularly engaging or humorous in this act, the characters are not fully developed, although the introduction of the wife of one of the group members who suggests that maybe a narrator will improve the play, played winningly by Melissa Canciller, relieves the plodding action in parts.

Act Two on the other hand is stylistically different from the more naturalistic Act One. In this Act, the play “The Hundred Flowers Project” has now become both an artistic and social media success, but there is nothing in it related to Chinese history or Mao.  Act Two is also highly stylized, with characters morphing into versions of these characters, memories becoming erased or re-invented, and technological flourishes from videos to I-phone camera pics are employed. Although compelling, this is the part of the play where you ask the important question: where did Mao go? I get it, Chen is trying to draw a connection between how Mao’s twisted, mostly invented narratives took over and overwhelmed his regime and his historical legacy – what started out as a revolution of the people for the people became the brutal cocooning of a suffering society by a delusional dictator- with the way social media is overwhelming and underscoring our lives right now, so much so that we create our own narratives, and we ultimately believe in them even if they don’t contain any hint of truth. But why use Mao and not any of the numerous authoritarian figures in the history of mankind, if there isn’t any specific reflection on the current situation or future ambitions of China? Chen intricately constructs Act Two, which is impressive, but also doesn’t make a believable case from transitioning into a highly-stylized, metaphorical form from the realism of the first act.  The difference is jarring, as if both acts, although sharing the names of the same characters, come from different plays. It also brings up the question- couldn’t the realism of Act One just continue on to Act Two and still achieve the same purposes? It is ok to stump, to baffle, to challenge, to provoke the audience, but there should be a pay-off at the end. In The Hundred Flowers Project, Chen doesn’t create one.

Director Joanie Schultz (who is at the mercy of Chen’s abrupt stylistic change between the two acts) and the attractive, energetic cast (in addition to Canciller, there’s Mia Park, Karmann Bajuyo, Joseph Sultani, Hannah Toriumi, and a very watchable Kroydell Galima) can only do so much with the material Chen has handed them.  They work really, really hard, and it shows. And for the most part, it’s the cast that keeps the audience inside the world of the play with them, however strangely opaque it has become.

The Hundred Flowers Project is playing until November 23 at Silk Road Rising’s home, Pierce Hall in The Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St.

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