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Testing The Language Barrier

May 18, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

If theater's strongest weapon is the word, how can an audience respond to a play in a language it doesn't understand?

It's not an idle question. Chicago and Vancouver are both presenting world theater festivals this spring, with companies coming from as far away as China. How can these troupes make more than eye-contact with American audiences?

Both the Haifa Municipal Theatre's production of "Ghetto" at the Chicago festival (which is played in Hebrew) and the Peking People's Art Theatre production of "Teahouse" at Vancouver's Expo 86 (which is played in Mandarin Chinese) supply transistorized earplugs, so that the listener can tune into an authorized translation from the booth.

Seeing the productions on successive nights, this listener found the devices a great help, particularly with "Teahouse," which has a fund of cross-talk. (Lao She's 1957 play traces the falling fortunes of a popular Chinese teahouse from 1898 to 1947, the year before the Communist revolution.) It also was a good idea to parcel out the lines in "Ghetto" to three translators, with the women's lines read by a woman.

Yet at each show there came an irresistible impulse to tear off one's headset and listen to the actors , even if one lost the literal sense of their lines. Theater isn't just what's said, but what's in the character's heart. The booth can't give us that. It has to come from the stage.

Both "Teahouse" and "Ghetto" featured full-hearted performances by actors who knew each other's ways. This wasn't a surprise. We rely on foreign ensembles to be ensembles, not the kind of pickup teams that we field. But it was a surprise that the acting in "Teahouse" had so little of the exotic about it.

One knew that this was the company that had done "Death of a Salesman" under Arthur Miller's direction in Peking. Still, one was expecting something more stylized, more "Chinese." Instead this was a camera-ready picture of a neighborhood restaurant that happened to be in China, but whose atmosphere was universal--the sort of place where the same customers come in every day, trying to cut the same deals.

The opening scene was as real and as noisy as noontime at Musso and Frank's, with the customers gabbing away and the waitress flying around with a tray of tea. And nothing happened during the course of the play that couldn't have happened in a big-city restaurant. The evening's only frankly theatrical touch was the jokester (played by an actor named Tong Di) who came before the curtain each act to deliver a rhymed spiel in the exact rhythms of a sidewalk rapmaster.

So much for exoticism. Another surprise was the absence of political message. "Teahouse" has one, of course: that this is how it was in China's bad old days, when self-interest and fear ruled everyone's life. But the message is implicit, not stated. Indeed, She's play was proscribed during the Cultural Revolution for being too negative and cynical. (He committed suicide as a result.)

One can see the censor's objection. These are not the happy, smiling heroes of the poster plays. "Teahouse" is a tragedy: The owner of the teahouse (Yu Shi-zhi) also kills himself. And it suggests that tragedy is inherent in human nature.

For a Westerner that makes it a better play. But it is never quite our play. Nuances of speech, costumes and behavior go over our head--details we'd relish in an American play. Too, there's a sameness to the downward course of the story. For all the flurry of subplots, this is the portrait of a society that has run out of steam, its wheels turning slower with each revolution. It is hard to build drama out of decline.

"Ghetto" in Chicago is closer to us in its rhythms and its subject--painfully close, at times. Gordon Davidson has announced an American version of the play at the Taper this fall. Even in Hebrew, it's an electric experience.

As with "The Trojan Women," which the Suzuki Company of Japan is performing at the Chicago festival this week, we know the background going in. And it is not a myth. There was such a ghetto in Poland. Decreeing that each family could keep two children, with the others sent to the camps--the Nazis did such things every day.

Playwright Joshua Sobol doesn't look away from the monstrousness of such acts, but his basic question is, how did the Jews of the ghetto cope with it? On what terms can one live with the devil?

On the terms that the situation allows. (Like "Teahouse," this is a play about people as they are, not about people as they ought to be.) No one in "Ghetto" makes a big speech of defiance to the Nazi commander (Doron Tavori). But the ghetto librarian (Ilan Toren) does politely refuse his claim to being a civilized person, and the quiet tone with which he does it carries tremendous theatrical weight.

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