Burning In China
nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
August 18, 2010
Mei you ban fa. It's a Chinese phrase that means "no way out," and it is a refrain we hear often during the course of Gary Moore's autobiographical dramatic monologue Burning in China. We meet Gary (Jeff LeBeau) just outside of his new English classroom in Shanghai, 1988, having been asked by his American college to work in China as an exchange professor. Little does Gary realize that he and his wife have arrived in a country that—under a polite, traditional veneer—harbors a deep sense of political unrest.
Far from the quintessential teacher, Gary never really set out to go into education and dreams of creating a rap opera: spoken word poetry performed on an epic musical scale. Nevertheless, he finds himself charmed by his pleasant students and frustrated to the point of begging on his desk for class participation when he asks pointed questions about Chinese culture and is greeted by mute, awkward shuffling. Gary's comrade in teaching, Mr. Sun, explains their silence best to him in the teacher's lounge: "We have a saying in China: 'The early bird—gets shot'."
In an unusual turn of events that provides a decisive moment in the play, Gary gets his chance to create a bilingual rap opera—in fact, the first public performance of rap documented in China—when he is invited to generate a piece for the university's arts festival. I am certain The Great Emancipator Meets The Monkey King stirred its audience of 1,700, possibly even to participate in revolutionary action at Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately, as presented here, the enactment of this play-within-a-play would benefit from more specific staging and less jarring light than a follow spot.
Mixed media aspects of this production bring life to an otherwise bare stage setting. Footage shot by director and Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel during his visit to Moore in China at the time bookends the monologue, providing glimpses of tai chi practitioners, a refinery blackening the sky with soot, bicyclists, and curious children. I found myself longing for establishing shots throughout. A brilliant moment of lighting design by Josh Iacovelli involves flashes of street and traffic lights across Gary's face as he travels by car from the airport to his new apartment in Shanghai.
Jeff LeBeau's delivery, while amiable and sincere, is not unlike an adrenaline-fueled bicyclist barrelling haphazardly through traffic. I was uncertain if it was due to time constraints, a directorial or character choice, or even nerves. Whatever the reason, I wished for more levels in LeBeau's storytelling and a slower pace so that the words tumbling out of his mouth could land and take root, allowing for a more visceral and less academic connection to his tale.
There is no question during the course of this piece that Moore influenced and encouraged his students to reconsider the meaning of the words The People's Republic of China. As one of his pupils says on the eve of Gary's hasty departure from the country, "We were a fire in the night to show others the way." In a land known to embrace myth and legend, Moore's contribution to the landscape will almost certainly live on in the hearts of his students who survived, trickling down to those bright-eyed children who look straight into Deschanel's lens in the closing video montage. Unfortunately, despite the energy of LeBeau, the incendiary flame in this production remains somewhere under the surface and never fully ignites.