“Fake news” will probably be one of the terms people most commonly associate with this past year. Beyond the outright hoaxes and the financial incentives for our leading content publishers to keep telling people what they want to hear are their efforts to push their own agendas, which include a lot of personal politics happening behind closed doors. This isn’t a recent development, but the intrusion of foreign authoritarians into our media has led the artists at Silk Road Rising to look to another country where people face similar pressures. Enter Hong Konger playwright Candace Chong’s 2012 Wild Boar, now premiering in English, adapted by David Henry Hwang (of M. Butterfly). The play is called a fable because it’s set in a fictional city on the brink of an extreme transformation, but the play is much messier than the sort of fable that hands a moral to you.
Self-Doubt and Self-Preservation both Lead to Self-Censorship
Ruan (F. Karmann Bajuyo) announces that he is quitting the newspaper he has worked at for years and founding his own. As a senior editor, he had been complicit in self-censorship for the sake of keeping ad revenue, but now, Mu Ne, a professor he was in the process of interviewing, has been forcibly disappeared. The professor had been researching a disastrous urban development project and has vanished just as the government is pushing an even more ambitious plan, and Ruan’s own article on the matter has been suppressed by his colleagues. Now, he’s had enough. He’s getting together his estranged wife, Tricia (Christine Bunuan), and his former pupil, Johnny (Scott Shimizu), and they’re going to expose the corruption and danger behind the new development scheme, a project called “The Perfect City.”
Of course, things aren’t that easy. Tricia was estranged from Ruan because she and Johnny had an affair. (Tricia had a lot of other affairs, too.) They both admire Ruan professionally, but they report the junior staff aren’t entirely confident that Mu Ne’s information was good, or that he even existed. Ruan only met the man once, although he has his files. And then there’s the matter of The Perfect City itself: the people behind it are clearly dangerous, but Johnny’s hacker friend, Yam (Fin Coe) and girlfriend, Karrie (Emily Marso), question whether it’s really something that they should be against. They care more about eating than freedom and never expected to have more to get by on than just enough. Ruan also cautions Johnny that a journalist’s job is to search for truth, but the truth is never really attainable.
Silk Road Rising Actors Weave Complicated Relationships
A viewer coming to Wild Boar just for the politics might be frustrated by how much time Chong spends on the love triangle, but her interest is clearly in the psychology of journalism, which isn’t just about abstract ideals. Ruan, Tricia, and Johnny have long history with each other and are thrown together in another high-pressure situation where it’s hard to tell who they’re fighting or on whose behalf. Tricia and Johnny both idealize Ruan, which forces him into a role where he can’t relate to them as well as a romantic or business equal. All three actors recognize that their characters are deeply introspective intellectuals who somewhat curate their mental models of each other in order to stay within their own comfort zones. There are several times when we see them describe each other in relation to themselves in ways that aren’t totally supported by their actions. Tricia, who Bunuan plays as outwardly self-contained, particularly enjoys yanking peoples’ chains by messing with their perceptions of her. Shimizu is ideal in the role of Johnny, playing him as someone who’s not exactly bombastic, but just a little too prone to oversharing, putting people on the spot by saying indelicate things, and self-pity. The only moment of unselfconscious emotion comes from Karrie, the least educated character, in a monologue in which she describes how briefly being a mother caused her to develop a relationship with motherhood as a concept.
Distance Makes the Mind Work Harder
The play’s more fantastic elements are evident in Anthony Churchill’s projections design, which are a nearly constant presence throughout. Just as The Perfect City is a redevelopment plan on a scale never before seen, so to do the powerful interests have manipulation techniques never before imagined. History didn’t shake out exactly how Chong predicted, but the science fiction elements create a distance that’s helpful for taking an analytical approach to the characters. Director Helen Young seems to have maintained that distance with set designer Yaeji Kim’s room made up of sliding doors, but part of it also comes from the unnaturalness of the translation. (These people all cram a huge number of words into their sentences.) The titular wild boar refers to how the animals sometimes still show up unexpectedly in Hong Kong. Within the play, they’re an ambiguous symbol for Johnny to project all sorts of things onto in his frustrated search for meaning.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Through December 17, 2017
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Fridays: 8:00 pm
Saturdays: 4:00 pm
Sundays: 4:00 pm
The Historic Chicago Temple Building
77 W Washington St, Chicago
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.
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Disclosure: This author has worked professionally with Silk Road Rising in the past.