Toronto’s Canadian Stage presents Lucy Kirkwood’s riveting political thriller Chimerica
Chimerica, a new play by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood, is a densely-packed political thriller set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and China’s subsequent economic ascent vis-à-vis America’s stagnation in the ensuing decades. Chimerica blends history, intrigue and contemporary geopolitics in a compelling mystery story with an eye-poppingly sleek production.
Kirkwood was inspired by one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century, taken in Beijing on June 5, 1989 in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the image features a lone unarmed man standing defiantly in the path of a column of tanks. To this day the man’s identity and fate remain unknown.
The play picks up in New York more than 20 years after the massacre where Joe Shofield (Evan Buliung), the photojournalist who snapped the iconic picture, receives a tip that the unidentified man from the photo is now living in America. Joe enlists the help of Zhang Lin (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), his old colleague in Beijing, and sets off on a quest to find “Tank Man.”
Kirkwood is neither Chinese nor American. She comes to the subject as a detached, third-party observer and takes a bit of a cerebral approach to the script to the point where sometimes it sounds as if she’s lifted lines of dialogue from articles in The Economist. At one point a character even gives a TED-style speech about the spending habits of contemporary Chinese consumers.
However, the magic trick Kirkwood is able to pull off with Chimerica is that her information-rich script doesn’t feel like an academic exercise; the playwright has deftly woven her reams of research into a compelling play; a mystery and political thriller that spans decades and continents.
Chris Abraham’s direction is sharp and focused; the show is tightly paced and the director is able to maintain an underlying level of intrigue that gives the proceedings a sense of urgency and drives the action forward. Chimerica grabs your attention and holds on; it’s the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner.
Abraham’s direction is supported by an amazingly talented design team that does some truly exceptional work on this show. The production design of Chimerica would rival that of the most lavish Broadway musical.
Judith Bowden’s polymorphic revolving set is vividly brought to life by Deco Dawson’s video designs based on iconic imagery and footage from period news broadcasts. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design features tension-tracks underscoring many dialogue scenes that really lend a film-like quality to the show and ups the intrigue.
There is a staggering number of automated cues in this show and all are executed with panache. The scene changes are particularly dazzling; the set revolves as scrims fly throughout the space, and characters cross the stage. Chimerica feels epic and cinematic and rolls along at a good clip, never seeming to drag even at its 3-hour run time.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the consistently strong performances by the ensemble who perform Kirkwood’s dense dialogue (featuring both English and Mandarin) with finesse.
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is a standout. His character Zhang Lin is the most complex and has the most compelling arc. Zhang becomes outraged by the death of a neighbour due to that city’s infamously severe air pollution and defies the Chinese government censors to publish an article in protest. Lee imbues Zhang with a quiet dignity and really humanized the character in a way that really drew me in.
Jasmine Chen has a magnetic presence both as the young Zhang Lin’s wife, Liuli, and her wordless spectre who haunts the older Zhang.
All in all, I think Chimerica is a thoroughly riveting, intellectually engaging and immensely satisfying piece of theatre. Don’t miss it.
- Chimerica is playing from March 29 to April 17, 2016 at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St. E)
- Shows run Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday at 8:00pm, Fridays at 7:00pm, and with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 1:00 pm beginning April 2
- Tickets $24 – $99 available online, by phone at 416-368-3110 or in person at the Berkeley Street Theatre box office.
Photo of Diana Tso, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Norman Yeung by Dylan Hewlett