A Response to Edit Kaldor’s “C’est du Chinois” at UtR
It was probably completely predictable that I’d find myself pecking out words at 2:30 in the morning on a Wednesday (Thursday?). That’s how January is, right? Best laid plains and all that.
But I wouldn’t be bothering were it not for Edit Kaldor’s C’est du Chinois, the show I caught tonight before a too-long evening at the Under the Radar opening party at the Public. It’s not the sort of show that elicits the sort of emotional “You’ve have to see this!” responses I heard from the people who, for instance, saw Back to Back’s Ganesh vs. the Third Reich tonight, but it’s a good, provocative show–the sort that sadly doesn’t do well in the heated atmosphere of buying/selling January festival season.
In brief, C’est du Chinois presents a multi-generational Chinese family, centered around a married couple: they have a kid, she has a dad, and he has a mom. The slightly gimmicky conceit is that they’ve recently arrived in New York (or, within the concept, wherever the show is playing), claim to like the town, and try to set up show hawking a series of easy-to-learn-Mandarin DVDs. In practice, the performance is both a demonstration of their wares as well as a necessary endeavor for salespeople working outside their native tongue: For the hour-ish duration of the show, the cast teaches you, the audience, enough Mandarin to be able to transact the purchase of their DVDs, which they stage themselves selling by the door as you leave.
What’s actually happening, of course, is a more subtle interaction. As the audience is taught, step by step, a series of nouns, verbs, and adjectives–ranging from “love” to “vitamins” to “cola” to “feng shui”–the performers themselves enact a family drama, informed by the experience of being immigrants.
It’s a piece that honestly I could stand to see again before being called upon to pass judgment. It plays on two different sorts of knowledge: first, the half-understood lesson in Mandarin Chinese that offers audiences the ability to sort-of follow the dialogue as it unfolds, and second, a cliche (but is archetypal or stereotypical?) set of characters and relationships that the audience “gets” well outside the bounds of language. A no-nonsense mother with high expectations of her son, who doesn’t much care for her daughter-in-law. A man who, pressured by his business-minded mother and whimsical wife drinks too much. A charming but perhaps failed father-in-law with a long career as an actor that clearly didn’t lead much of anywhere.
The family drama that unfolds within C’est du chinois is decidedly within the bounds of stock character type, and the challenge the piece presents is whether or not it’s actually challenging audiences or whether it’s offering the facade of challenge, hiding behind the smoke-screen of language. Either way, the piece is charming and strong enough that it deserves to be seen and grappled with amidst the busy show-going schedules of visiting presenters.