David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish” at Arts West

In China, signs supposedly translated into standard English are too often glaringly flawed, as anyone who has visited China can affirm. In “Chinglish,” David Henry Hwang’s robust comedy of miscommunications, American businessman, Daniel (appealingly played by Evan Whitfield), tries to sell correctly translated signs to the Minister of Culture in one of China’s smaller cities. (It has only four million people.)

The play, well directed and staged by Annie Lareau, is performed in both English and Mandarin with supertitles that translate the Mandarin into English for the audience. Young, attractive Chinese translators perform that task for the Chinese officials. Their misinterpretations are numerous and laugh-out-loud funny. Yet comic as these flawed versions are, the play also offers some thoughtful insights into the perils of international trade. Daniel soon learns, as must all American businessmen in China, it’s not only the language that’s misunderstood.

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Evan Whitfield (Daniel) & Kathy Hsieh (Xi Yan) photo credit Michael Brunk

Sadly, it’s all but impossible for Daniel to understand the Chinese culture. To his peril, he’s unaware of the responsibility one has to one’s relatives, the importance of tradition, and the concept of honor. That’s as hard as it is for him to capture the most simple of phrases. And that’s no easy task. For instance when he tries to say in Mandarin “I love you” out comes “Frog loves to pee.”

Ah yes there are some racy love scenes (no frogs included). Daniel connects with Xi Chan, the Vice Minister of Culture, played marvelously by Kathy Hsieh who manages to combine a frosty government hostility with a hot sexuality. The stage lights up when she’s on it.

Although playwright Hwang is far more interested in humor here rather than with character development, the actors play with sly wit, intensity, and, sometimes the inscrutability the role demands. Guy Nelson as Peter, the seemingly affable and knowledgeable British expat who Daniel hires to translate for him, makes sure you never quite know just what side he’s on. And Hing Lam as minister Cai beautifully reveals the layers of his personality as his circumstances change.

As Daniel says at the opening of this play, “One thing you learn about doing business in China is to bring your own translator.” But you won’t need any translator to enjoy this genuinely funny production.

Through March 29 at Arts West, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle, $15-$34.50, (206 938–0339 or www.artswest.org).

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