With the U.S. debut of Lucy Kirkwood’s unsettlingly insightful and misleading play Chimerica, Studio Theatre’s 2015-2016 season began with an excited yet disoriented flash.
The sounds of a camera’s snapping photos launches the show, as disjointed segments of a single photograph are streamed onto the stage in a series of boxes that eventually complete a whole.
A grey square in the background of the screen.
A white globe to the bottom right.
Brown and green squares in the foreground.
A red smudge in the bottom left corner.
Can you picture the iconic photo?
Now picture a man in a white shirt carrying grocery bags, standing up to the Communist Party before tanks on June 4, 1989.
The street that fills the background is grey.
The streetlights in the bottom right are white globes. The tanks are brown and green, and red smudges litter the street. This image of Tiananmen Square, revealed piece-by-piece, leaves the audience confused until the absolute last moment, when the whole image is exposed.
The entirety of the production follows this same structure: things can often be as they appear, but also may not be easily categorizable.
Through its focus on the idea of the many machines that govern our lives—literal machines like cars or figurative machines surrounding politicians—Chimerica forces audience members to reevaluate how we view these related concepts through the eyes of characters: photojournalist Joe Schofield and categorist Tessa Kendrick.
Artistic Director David Muse framed the play, stating it “presents individuals caught up in a giant machine.” This is true even on the most superficial level. The stage is virtually a machine, with moving parts and images. The idea of “the machine” is consistently present throughout the production, inspiring questions about our own autonomy.
It becomes incredibly easy to imagine a future in which high school students search for and attach meaning to every use of the word “machine” in Chimerica, as they currently do for the word “weight” in the American theatrical mainstay, The Crucible.
Photojournlist Joe constantly wears his camera, the machine of his trade around his neck, while shirking cars and other machinery. Other characters are intensely involved in political machines, namely the machine of the Communist Party in China.
While the future of the play in American theaters is incredibly bright, it is also exceptionally timely. If plays at Studio “reflect the contemporary world,” this production is a crystal clear mirror. Joe points his camera toward the audience, turning the public’s questions back on themselves.
Studio Theatre has been forward about how Chimerica is “one of the most ambitious projects” they have ever done, particularly in technical complexity.
Be that as it may, the degree of seamlessness and minute detail prove successful in this production. Every piece of paper ever used as a prop has actual material on it. One such paper has a full graph on it, demonstrating Chinese propaganda, while photographs are on all the papers in Joe’s apartment.
It is these details that make the performance so tangible.
Perhaps the most beautiful of details was the two-storied stage.
The London production lacked this particular element, but it allowed for gorgeous upstairs / downstairs juxtaposition, as the audience watches a couple submit to the throws of passion in America downstairs as a man submits to the Chinese government in the upstairs portion of the stage.
During his first day as a journalistic photographer, Joe was told, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
And Chimerica bleeds. It shocks. It puts faces to events we have been socialized to not think about.
But it also uplifts. It heralds. It celebrates.
Yet it reminds us of our own humanity, our own success, our own failures.
Chimerica runs until Oct. 28 at Studio Theatre. More information may be found here.
Featured Photo Courtesy: Background – Tessa Klein, Diana Oh, Julie-Ann Elliott, Jade Wu, Jordan Barbour, Lee Sellars, Jacob Yeh, Kenneth Lee, Kelsey Wang, and Paul Morella.
Foreground: Rob Yang and Ron Menzel. (Courtesy of Teddy Wolff)
Courtney Steininger is a sophomore English major and may be reached at Courtneysteininger@gmail.com.