By Damon Chua; Directed by Kaipo Schwab
Produced by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 2.8.15
Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre, 410 W 42nd Street
by Cindy Pierre on 1.23.15
Katie Lee Hill and Jean Brassard Film Chinois. Photo by John Quincy Lee.
BOTTOM LINE: The film noir cinematic genre translates successfully to stage in this polished tale about the rise of communism and burgeoning love in 1947 Beijing.
It’s 1947 in Beijing, China, and World War II has not only decimated the land and ravaged hearts, but it has also left behind a period of unrest and uncertainty in the city. Communism is on the rise in the hearts of some, while others search desperately for a way to get out. Such are the times in Damon Chua’s Film Chinois, a sublime evocation of the film noir genre presented by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.
With only a cast of five -- one of whom skillfully plays a slew of slinky characters under the title of The Man (James Henry Doan) -- Chua and a stellar production team take us on an alluring journey to the underside of Peking (the Romanized name for Beijing) that draws us deep into a world of crime, mystery, deceit, and complicated love. Fortunately, this road is paved so artfully and majestically that the patron of this show may choose to linger on it post-curtain.
From the opening sequences until the last word is uttered, Film Chinois is ever-enchanting and remains faithful to the hyper-stylized art form that it is meant to emulate with few deviations or foibles. Though not staged strictly with the low-key black-and-white visuals that are normally used for film noir, lighting designer Marie Yokoyama’s ambient choices, Sheryl Liu’s set design, and Carol A. Pelletier’s costumes are elegant, fluid and warm enough to maintain the integrity of both the artistic influence and 1940s China. They are the right blend to make the characters pop on screen when they need to and disappear into the shadows when warranted.
Film Chinois tells the story of Chinadoll (Roseanne Ma), a Maoist femme fatale; Randolph (Benjamin), her charming, American nemesis and lover; Simone, a Chinese singer (played brilliantly by Katie Lee Hill); and Ambassador (Jean Brassard), a slippery Belgian diplomat with a dark past and Simone’s “meal ticket” out of Beijing. As we follow these characters through an intricate web of betrayal and mistaken motives, the action, though rarely hurried and wonderfully paced by director Kaipo Schwab, leaves us panting for what’s to come next.
As Chinadoll and Simone, Ma and Hill, respectively, juxtapose a hard edge with sultriness at nearly every turn, driving the plot forward with their every step. While everyone succeeds in delivering their lines well, these actors particularly capture the essence of film noir with their movements and speech. Though Ma hits her lines a little too hard in the beginning, she redeems herself most gracefully in a scene where she appears as Randolph’s drunken hallucination. In spite of looking as though she would be a fringe character at first, Hill infuses Simone with so much spunk and coquetry that you can’t imagine the drama without her, and wouldn’t want to. Her laugh will win you over every time.
Ian Wehrle’s sound design also hits some good notes. Each sound byte ushers in the right mood for the right moment, from instrumentals that are appropriate for the period to gunshots that resound with distinction.
With all of the tough choices and difficult situations that often accompany this cinematic style, Film Chinois does such a great job of paying homage to film noir that you might think that you’re at the movies instead of at the theatre. But as you experience the immediacy and vibrancy of everyone’s hard work and the harmony between all of the elements, you’ll happily be lost in the triumphant translation.
(Film Chinois plays at the Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, through February 8, 2015. Tickets are $51.25 and are available at www.telecharge.com, or by calling 212-239-6200. For more show info visit panasianrep.org.)