Review: The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Produced by Seattle Public Theatre with SIS Productions. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. Choreography by Annie Yee. Costume Design by Christine Tschirgi. Lighting Design by Emily Leong. Sound Design by Jay Weinland. Props Design by Robin Macartney. With Mika Swanson, Kevin Lin, Allen Go, Nina Williams-Teramachi, Van Lang Pham, Kathy Hsieh, and Maile Wong. Now through November 5, 2017.
In a nutshell, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS is a fascinating examination of real life in modern China peeling back the many layers that make up contemporary Chinese culture including many topics that the totalitarian Chinese government would like to keep hidden from peering eyes. It’s warts and all as Ms Cowhig takes on China’s history of human rights violations, poor working conditions in its many factories producing goods for Western markets, as well as tough censorship laws and non-stop propaganda and obfuscation of the truth. The modern Chinese government’s regime has worked hard to present itself as “new and improved” and seemingly open to more expressions of opinion but the reality is, China under Xi Jinping is just as totalitarian and rigid as any other oppressive one party government.
The play makes it clear that this isn’t a going to be a cuddly representation of China with polite peasants pleasantly bowing while practicing martial arts or making bowls of sweet and sour stir fried tofu. The opening scene includes a rural peasant woman giving birth to an unwanted daughter and the disgusted midwife dumping the infant to die in a slop bucket a not uncommon occurrence in China a country with strict population control laws and a society that places greater value on men over women.
But, the father has second thoughts about dumping the girl and she is rescued and named Sunny. Eventually, she (like many rural Chinese residents) flees the country to work in a big city factory job with thousands of other workers all vying to survive or hopefully claw their way to a “cushy” office job. With the help of a fellow worker and a new positive outlook, Sunny eventually finds herself under the scrutiny of upper management who want to use the girl to help improve their corporate image.
There are multiple plot lines in The World of Extreme Happiness as we follow Sunny climbing the corporate ladder while simultaneously coping with problems back home involving her now widowed father and a younger still in school brother who wishes to move to the big city as well. There’s also a sinister storyline involving a powerful female executive at Sunny’s factory who must deal with secrets from her own past as the daughter of rural dissidents and how that past comes into conflict with the wishes of the current government.
I liked this play a lot. But, I have to say that I like the play itself, a bit more than I like this specific production which seems unfulfilled and underdeveloped. There are strong performances in this production (newcomer Mika Swenson is terrific as Sunny, giving a grounded but rich performance; veteran Seattle actress Kathy Hsieh gives two very contrasting but fascinating performances as the tough female executive and a cunning old country midwife; Kevin Lin is the strongest of the male actors, giving an impassioned performance as the younger brother) but some of the other performances aren’t quite as strong. And, normally very reliable Seattle director Desdemona Chiang, who customarily gives us boldly directed and highly energized productions feels a bit tentative here…the direction is straightforward but if feels uncertain at times. It’s “good” enough but not the level of good we’ve come to expect from Ms Chiang. She’s one of a tiny handful of directors in Seattle that in the know audiences can depend on for smart, strong staging.
We’re also given a rather bland mise-en-scène with the costumes doing their job but the lighting isn’t particularly interesting nor is the sound design and most shockingly of all, there isn’t ANY set to speak of….just a blank white canvas backdrop. A set designer was mentioned in the original press release but none listed in the program so evidently, something happened behind the scenes that prevented the execution of much of the desired production design. And, that’s not to say you HAVE to have any kind of elaborate set but the lack of one here and the fact that the show feels like it’s missing certain elements that could benefit it, might be why I feel a bit ambivalent about this specific production while being enthusiastic about the play itself. I think Ms Cowhig’s words deserve a bit more.
Strong marks for the script and certain elements of this play but I also feel like I need to see The World of Extreme Happiness again with a more fully realized and complete production. But, for anyone interested in the topics explored here, I can recommend seeing this show and exploring this fascinating look at modern China and enjoying many of the performances on stage.