REVIEW: Lantern (Pretty Asian Theatre)

Lantern truly illuminates [by Sharu Delilkan]

Light your way home

Right from the get-go the acting is ballsy and confident – in yer face and full of pace. Chye-Ling Huang and James Roque play off each other nicely and clearly believe and/or personally identify with the key themes and characters of the play. Coming from Malaysia where Chinese New Year is a big part of my culture, even though I’m of Indian/Sri Lankan descent, I was excited about the premise of this production. Like all festive celebrations Chinese New Year is a time where families get together, there is an attempt to settle old scores and wipe the slate clean. And that is most definitely the underlying storyline that underpins Lantern to its core.

These themes provide amusing and poignant insight into being Chinese and being labelled Chinese in New Zealand – a country that calls itself multi-cultural but often doesn’t measure up in its throwaway comments, assumptions and well meant ignorance. Not that the narrative is whingey or complaining in an way, in fact much to the contrary. A majority of the story comes from simple sibling rivalry and the craziness that all teenagers endure along with growing pains.

Aptly being staged during the Auckland Lantern Festival, this two-hander is delivered intelligently by emerging talents Huang and Roque, under the astute direction of Eli Matthewson and Hamish Parkinson. While the central characters that they play are brother and sister Ken and Jen, they also play a raft of other characters including their senile father Henry and estranged mother Rose. Although both Roque and Huang display great talent in their delivery I must admit at times I found the delineation between characters a little loose – something that can be easily refined with a bit more direction. That being said I must commend the quick character changes, especially during the Chinese New Year‘s Eve dinner scene, which were impressively slick given that it was the opening night show.

I liked the fact that both the directors are obviously not of Asian descent – which accounts for the believable treatment of the all too familiar subject matter that immigrants constantly explore i.e. “where they belong”. Lantern benefits from these objective outside-eye perspectives, which a play such as this one could have easily lacked. Both Matthewson and Parkinson’s comic timing and genius also definitely shines through, evident by the numerous laugh-out-loud moments throughout.

Renee Liang’s skilful writing comes through as she manages to incorporate a plethora of social issues in a short space of time. This includes family values, sense of belonging, internet dating, racism, sibling rivalry and martial issues. The story cycles through the generations using vignettes of overlapping story, slickly choreographed character changes and multiple uses of simple props such as the chopsticks displaying a great deal of imagination.

Both actors work diligently to bring us 10 characters between them, and did a great job especially given the limited rehearsal time afforded. However, the multiple characters could be culled a bit to allow some of the more prominent characters to be further developed, which could solve the aforementioned problem of confusion and clarity between characters and ultimately story-lines.

Rachel Marlow’s subtle lighting and sound works a treat, as it complements rather than detracts from the central story-lines, enhancing our emotional journey throughout the piece.

Watching the audience, they were thoughtful, engaged and utterly delighted by the comedic elements within the show. For some, the messages appeared to be new and enlightening while for others the show seemed to touch on familiar immigrant themes, but in a deeply personal way. For me personally, the essence of the writing was perfectly summed up in the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner itself. I believe that the humour and shock of family revelations could have been melded into one along with the love and sadness brought to us in the following scenes, which could have helped create a more dramatic climax to the show. Just my opinion but it would seem fitting that a show celebrating the beginning of the Year of the Horse should end in a rittle bit of horseplay.

All in all Lantern is a ‘pretty’ slice of Asian theatre which definitely gives the audience lots of food for thought. It’s great to finally see theatre kick off the annual Lantern Festival, which many Aucklanders have come to know and love. May this seed eventually culminate in a fully-fledged Asian theatre festival in the not too distant future.

Pretty Asian Theatre presents Lantern and plays at The Musgrove Studio, Maidment Theatre until 15 February. More information at The Maidment

BONUS: James Wenley’s Questions with playwright Renee Liang

This was your first play, which you originally produced yourself in 2009. How does it feel all these years later to revisit it with a new young company taking ownership?

Exciting!  It’s the first time I’ve had one of my full length plays produced by another company, so it feels like another step for me.  I’ve really enjoyed being invited to rehearsals and seeing a new take on the characters and the staging, and it’s great to be given a chance to revisit the story and script, as well, and to see Chye-Ling and James, Hamish and Eli in action. It’s also luxurious not having to deal with the day to day production worries – those are in the hands of the eminently capable David Sutherland, so I get to just sit back, enjoy and dream of my royalties.

What was it what you wanted to say with the play when you were writing it? Has this changed?

My first draft was just a cobbled together bunch of scenes I’d collected in my head over the years of various racist (but quite funny) things that happened to me. I started writing the play initially because I wanted somewhere to put these emotionally charged moments, but then as I was putting it together I started wanting to make sense of everything. And then the characters started taking over as they do, and it became much less about me figuring out my identity, and more about the Chen family just learning to be a family.  I’ve since realised that every play I write is, at its heart, a family drama, and the problems we all face are shared and universal, no matter how odd the situation.   So while I initially started writing the play to explore personal questions of identity, I think I’ve ended up exploring the idea of family love – and what makes us all human.

You’ve rewritten it for a new cast. What is different about the script this time?

I’ve added characters into some scenes.  So some scenes which were originally monologues (where the audience only sees one side of the conversation) are now two person scenes – but still only with one actor.  It makes the job of the actor much harder, which is good, I’m told.  It also allows me to deepen some of the characters and add more to their backstory without being too obvious about it. There’s been some tightening of the action and heightening of the themes, the usual tweaking that writers love to do if they get that second chance.

You’ve been a trailblazer in kiwi-asian theatre. What are your hopes for its future? 

We’re already seeing the future: more and diverse voices speaking out, like Sarita So and Michelle Ang, who offer their own unique take on what it means to live between cultures yet still stay true to yourself.  We’ve proven we can be successful in independent productions; I’d love to see an ‘established’ theatre company take a punt on a mainstage production; and of course I’d love to see our work tour overseas, too.  I think at least one of these is imminent.

I’m excited about your next project, Paper Boats. What can you tell us about that?

It’s been three years in the making, so far – and pretty ambitious!  There are 14 of us working with oral histories- all theatremakers with a Kiwi-Chinese heritage. We’re bringing the stories into focus using all the theatrical magic tricks we know – physical theatre, light and water play, shadows and poetry.  As well as being a participant in the workshops, I’m the writer on the project, working with Gary Henderson as our dramaturge – he was also dramaturge on the original incarnation of Lantern, so I’m stoked to be working with him again!

Other than Lantern’s season, how else have you been celebrating Chinese New Year?

It was my turn this year to host the traditional New Year’s Eve dinner – this is the one where all the extended family get together, stuff their faces and have a good old yarn (if it sounds like Christmas, that’s because it pretty much is.)  Everyone ate too much, the kitchen was squashed with people taking turns to cook their special dishes and we only noticed how late it was when the children started falling over. Our family photo, which we hastily took at the end of the night, is hilarious with kids either crying or moving too fast to capture. So, pretty much the usual Liang family chaos.

The Lantern Festival, which takes place at the end of the two week celebration period, is going to be fun too.  We took my little girl last year and she couldn’t get enough of the lanterns – and the food. Needless to say we’ll be there again this year (tip: if you go towards the end of the night, you get all the cut price food and drinks. Very bad for the waistline!).

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