Tuesday, September 18, 2012

HIDING WORDS (for you)

Special to TorSun
17 SEPT 2012
R: 2.5/5

Pictured: John Ng, Rebecca Applebaum

The more one delves into the history of mankind, one can’t help but be impressed, not only by the depths some segments of society have plumbed in their efforts to oppress others, but by the ingenuity of the oppressed in thwarting those oppressors. Centuries ago in China, for instance, when they were forbidden access to the written word, resourceful women developed their own way of communicating — a hidden language called Nushu, literally woven into the very fabric of their lives and passed under the noses and eyes of those who oppressed them.

This fascinating secret script is at the heart of a new play, titled HIDING WORDS (for you), which had its world premiere Saturday at the Enwave Theatre, a production by Eventual Ashes. Written and co-directed, with Esther Jun, by Gein Wong, it tells the story of two young women: Grace (played by Stephanie Jung), a modern-day young Canadian of Chinese descent who finds herself suddenly and inexplicably on the wrong side of the law; and Wing-Yin (Rebecca Applebaum), an ambitious young girl of mid-19th century China, hungering for knowledge in a world teetering on the brink of bloody revolution. Grace has been inadvertently caught up in an international investigation of terrorism, while Wing-Yin’s hunger for knowledge has led her into the heart of the revolution sweeping her land and into tragedy.

Through a bit of theatrical hocus-pocus, playwright Wong brings these two young women and their problems together, despite the disparity in their eras. But ultimately, what she fails to do is make her audience understand in any meaningful way the depth of their oppression, or their courage in fighting it.

Her cast, which also includes Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Richard Lee, Susan Lock and an over-wound John Ng, is obviously committed to the project as is dancer Soomi Kim, cast as the living embodiment of this ancient text. On a design front, Wong creates a sometimes impressive sound and projection design, backed by designers Jung-Hye Kim and Faline Park who take care of sets, props and costumes. But in the end, she has stretched herself too thin on several fronts.

As a playwright, Wong fails to provide a tight and cohesive script. As directors, she and her associate fail to impose not only a strong sense of time and place on the work, but a sense of pacing as well. Instead, they allow elaborate technical demands to trip up the storyline, slowing the action and leading us off on tangents that do little or nothing to serve the story, adding only a sense of confusion to an over-elaborate plot.

Still, this is a visually powerful work that manages to shine a light into the bottomless well of inventiveness from which the oppressed have always drunk. Best of all, that light, unfocused though it may be, illuminates a part of history that deserves to be more widely known. There’s a good play buried in here. Wong has yet to find it. 

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