Not-so-innocent Americans abroad

Center Stage's 'Chinglish' and Profile's 'Eyes for Consuela' take on the faces of the Ugly American

In The Ugly American, something uncanny, or maybe just unhappily predictable, happens when Americans land in a foreign culture and forge ahead as if everyone plays by their rules. Acting as official or unofficial emissaries of the empire, they find themselves tangled in a local culture they underestimate and therefore fail to understand. “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious,” Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote in their 1958 novel, which dealt with how the U.S. failed to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians over the Communists.

The image of the Ugly American lives on, of course, echoing down the years from the 1963 movie version and its visions of Vietnam all the way to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern Africa, and even places like Okinawa, where pressure to oust American military bases grows ever-stronger. You can build viaducts and aqueducts. But in Gaul, the Roman legions were looked on with suspicion.

Two shows opened on Portland stages over the weekend that give contemporary twists to the saga of the Ugly American. David Henry Hwang’s 2011 comedy Chinglish, at Portland Center Stage, tells the tale of an American businessman with a shady past who tries to strike it rich in the new China. And at Profile Theatre, Sam Shepard’s 1998 romance Eyes for Consuela, based on a story by Octavio Paz, immerses its audience in the travails of a middle-aged American man who flees his marital troubles in Michigan for a rundown hotel room in Mexico and becomes, both literally and symbolically, the captive of another man’s love.

Chinglish approaches the problem of culture clash as a puzzle. Consuela approaches it as a mystery.

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Chilip and O'Connor in "Chinglish." Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Chilip and O’Connor in “Chinglish.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Chinglish largely leaves aside the world of politics for the world of business, and yet, it doesn’t: In China, where state and corporate interests are if possible even more intermingled than they are in the United States, business and politics are almost impossible to separate. That’s one of Hwang’s talking points: business and government are personal, and the areas we like to think of as personal are also intimately political and businesslike. The rule of law is illusory; one gets ahead by honoring personal connections. So, for example (and this runs outside of but parallel to the plot of the play) American-based banks and other corporations hire the children of powerful Chinese politicians as a necessary part of the price of doing business in China. You scratch my progeny’s back, I’ll scratch yours.

One of the great jokes of Chinglish, which takes its name from the often inadvertently hilarious translations of Mandarin into English (“keep off the grass” = “I like your smile, but unlike you put your shoes on my face”), is that the not-so-innocent American abroad, Daniel Cavanaugh (Peter O’Connor), is trying to sell accurately translated English signs to the Chinese – and he doesn’t understand a word of Mandarin, let alone the byzantine social customs of a culture that is many centuries older than his own. If his company wins the contract, it won’t be because of the quality of its translations.

Hwang hurls Daniel into a sea of cultural rip tides that are sneaky-deep and quick, threatening to pull him under. A supposed ally, the cultural minister Cai Guoliang (Jian Xin), puts on a happy face as he surreptitiously slams the door in Daniel’s. A supposed opponent, deputy cultural minister Xi Yan (Tina Chilip), not only holds Daniel’s hand through intricate negotiations, she also hops into bed with him – as it turns out, for an extremely complicated set of reasons. Peter Timms (Jeff Locker), an Englishman who’s lived and taught in this “small” regional city (a mere 4 million people) for many years and is now tying to pass himself off as a business consultant, seems to talk good cultural sense but runs into his own slammed doors. Bad-boy Enron figures like Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling play a surprise role in negotiations. And always, always, Daniel’s surfing in waters way over his head, yet somehow managing to keep from tumbling off the board. O’Connor’s blend of bluff salesman chutzpah and earnest little-boy-lostness, along with Chilip’s nuanced revelations of Xi Yan’s multiple motivations, form the solid and likable core of Center Stage’s production. Excellent support comes also from Lily Tung Crystal, Rachel Lu, and  Yuekun Wu.

The show, directed by May Adrales, is as smooth as its revolving scene changes, capturing a brittle and deftly timed presentational comic edge in its performances and navigating the tricky shoals of its bilingual text (about a quarter of the dialogue is in Mandarin, with English supertitles) without an apparent hitch. It plays perfectly easily for English speakers. And for Mandarin speakers? I don’t know: like Daniel, and most Americans, I don’t speak a word of Mandarin. That, after all, is part of Hwang’s point.

Hwang is best-known for his massive Broadway hit M. Butterfly, which plays off of themes in Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly and has a yearning, transformative dramatic quality. But a lot of his work, from FOB to his chamber-opera collaboration with Philip Glass 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof to this play, is essentially comic in outlook, seeing life as a puzzle-box that is both frustrating and endearingly ingenious. Hwang analyzes the game, but he also enjoys it. Chinglish has its echoes of Let’s Make a Deal and Heart of Darkness in addition to The Ugly American. But it reminds me even more closely of Jerry Sterner’s 1989 hit Other People’s Money, which both excoriated and reveled in the wicked ways of Wall Street. Like Chinglish, it’s a pretty darned entertaining play, too.

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Mendelson and Alcalá in "Eyes for Consuelo." Photo: David Kinder

Mendelson and Alcalá in “Eyes for Consuela.” Photo: David Kinder

Eyes for Consuela, the first production in Profile’s season of Sam Shepard plays and also the company’s first show in residence at Artists Repertory Theatre, is the mystery to Chinglish’s puzzle. Like most Shepard plays, it deals less in logic than in the deep and tumbling passions of the lower brain and heart. You get the sense with Chinglish that if you try long and hard enough, you can think your way out. You get the sense with Consuela that thinking has nothing to do with it: If you get out at all, you’ll have to feel your way, dive deeper and deeper into your own contradictions and the encompassing, dangerous fog that inevitably fools your senses until you can latch onto something true. The play tickles at the edges of magical realism, and carries the symbolic wallop of a tall tale.

The Ugly American in Eyes for Consuela is Henry, an obsessive escapee from a place he despises (Michigan, so frigid compared to his native Texas) and a marriage that’s gone sour. Henry, played by Michael Mendelson like an emotional pinball racking up hundreds of bonus points, has landed in a squalid little hotel room in a steamy part of Mexico where nothing seems to happen, and yet the air is filled with something dangerous and urgent. Wrapped up in his own head, he barely notices – until, suddenly, he finds himself on the wrong end of a knife blade, captured by a seeming madman who calmly explains that he isn’t going to kill Henry, he’s only going to gouge out his eyes as a gift for his wife Consuela. Henry’s night of the iguana, played out to the tune of his captor’s increasingly sympathetic if lunatic truth, circles and circles as it aims toward its moment of self-comprehension.

 As a mood piece, Eyes for Consuela thrums along eerily and seductively. As a drama, it’s a bit of a mess – representative Shepard in its themes and compulsions, but not top-flight Shepard in its structure and depth, or even its language. One logical problem – if you’re being held captive and your captor falls asleep, wouldn’t you run out the door instead of settling in for your own snooze? – nearly sinks the enterprise. I don’t know how Paz’s story, The Blue Bouquet, solves the problem – I can imagine Henry simply being in thrall to his captor, Amado, and unable to break the spell that’s been cast – but the play doesn’t make that case.

I also have difficulties with the way that Mendelson, an actor I admire, and his director, Mikhael Tara Garver, have chosen to play Henry, with a sort of manic hyperactivity that rarely lets up. As a character study it might make sense: Henry’s at the end of his rope, frightened out of his wits, and he rages. But dramatically, I long for him to rein himself in, so that in those key moments when he needs to cut loose he’s not just doing what he’s already been doing. I want a shape to his nervous outbursts, not just an all-out jangled nerve. Similarly, I wonder about the hectic racing-about-the-stage by Crystal Ann Muñoz as Consuela, representing a frantic effort to escape her unusual circumstance. Something more withheld, more still – a magic produced by costuming and lights – might work better.

On the other hand, there’s much to like here, in particular Andrés Alcalá’s earthy and menacing and deeply funny performance as Amado, Henry’s captor. It’s an impressive and welcome return to the Portland stage by Alcalá, who’s been absent for several years, first at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and for the past seven years in Arizona and on national tours. Gilberto Martin Del Campo is solid in the small but pivotal role of the old man Viejo, and the singer/songwriter Edna F. Vazquez is superb as the troubadour Ejakatl, lurking around the edges with her guitar, providing the musical mood for the telling of the tale. Shepard was a musician before he was a playwright, and he’s often thought in melodramatic terms, from the early days of The Tooth of Crime to his heavily scored classic-period A Lie of the Mind. When he uses music, he uses it creatively and well. Technical credits are once again fine, too: Seth Reiser’s shabby scenic design, Jessica Bobillot’s costumes, Carl Faber’s lighting, and again, a special nod to Sharath Patel for his understatedly eerie sound design.

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“Chinglish” continues through February 9. Ticket and schedule information here.

“Eyes for Consuela” continues through February 2. Ticket and schedule information here.

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