The Dining Room
(Photo © Mike Peters)
The Dining Room
(Photo © Mike Peters)
A few years ago, Rong Guangrun, the president of Shanghai Theatre Academy, paid a visit to New Jersey's Montclair State University, where Susan Kerner is a teacher in the school's dance and drama department. The two got along and pondered the possibility of a co-production. Guangrun's actors didn't speak English and Kerner's kids didn't know a word of Chinese, but still: Could they do a show in which each actor would speak in his native language?

After Kerner went to guest-teach at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, she got an idea thanks to Nina Zou, a bilingual instructor there. When Zou told Kerner that she'd translated Sylvia from English into Chinese, Kerner was immediately reminded of another A.R. Gurney play: The Dining Room. It's structured as a series of short scenes in which six actors -- three male, three female -- portray dozens of different characters in 18 scenes. "This was a play with very flexible casting," says Kerner. "So if Rong gave me a few actors or many, I could find a way to use them, which wouldn't be nearly as easy with a more traditionally structured play."

But wait: Isn't The Dining Room all about WASPs? Kerner nods and smiles, then answers, "This play is about cultural change and transformation. It deals with the shift in women's roles and how that affects families. That's what's happening in China today, where the family dynamic is being altered. I found that the Chinese actors got the play's message right away."

The kids performed in Shanghai first. Kerner tells me that she was again impressed with the Academy: "It's one of the three major drama schools in China, a Juilliard-style conservatory where the physical and vocal training is very rigorous; 6500 to 7000 applicants compete each year for 100 places in the first-year class. The students are all talented, well trained, and beautiful. It's been a pleasure to work with them, and they take direction better than most American actors I've worked with."

Now that the Montclair Staters have returned home, I can get their take on the experience. Colleen Finnegan says, "We had to learn their parts in English because we wouldn't otherwise understand what they were saying when they said it." Diana Limon seems diplomatic in the way she describes the Chinese approach to acting; she doesn't quite come out and say that it's broader, more grandiose, and over-the-top, but that's what it sounds like she feels. Ari Frankel notes that, "Over there, you have to get used to audiences getting up in the middle of a scene, walking around, talking on cells, and taking pictures." Seems we're luckier here than we might have guessed!

Time for the show in Montclair. I watch four Shanghai seniors, three men and one woman, mix with six Montclair Staters. Yes, each actor speaks in his/her native language, but it really seems as if each fully understands what everyone else is saying. As the play unfolds, some of the Chinese students speak in English. There even are places where English completely disappears, when the Montclair Staters brave a word or two of Chinese. (Both sets of students phonetically learned the foreign phrases.) If the Chinese really do have the tendency to aggrandize their emotions on stage, Kerner has pulled them away from doing so; everyone, regardless of national origin, gives a nicely controlled performance.

But what I really want to do is talk to the Shanghai students afterward and see what they have to say about their theatrical foreign exchange. I get by with a little help -- no, a lot of help -- from Zou, who patiently listens to each of my questions, turns it into Chinese, waits for the answer, and then translates it for me. I mention a scene in the play where the teenaged WASPS are planning to have a liquor-soaked party while their parents are away. Is there much drinking among Chinese teens? Zou pauses after I ask this because, I think, she knows the answer and feels she can give it to me herself. But she goes through the verbal motions, gets her response, then turns to me and says in a bored voice, "Of course."

I'm curious about what the kids knew of foreign theater before they got here. The answer Zou gives is, "We know The Phantom of the Opera, The Cats, and The Miserables." I nod and counter, "Okay, but what about non-musicals?" Zou conveys, "The Chairs, Othello, and Endgame." Kerner is quick to note, "but none of those is American." Pressed to come up with a playwright from the good ol' U.S. of A., Liu Hui is able to summon up Arthur Miller.

I ask what they'll miss most when they return home, and actress Wang Yang Mei Zi cites the less costly prices for Lancome and Clinique cosmetics. What things at home have they missed since they've been here? "Real Chinese food," Zou tells me. "But we went to the Ollie's in Times Square and we loved it. That was before we went to The Rent." So they got to see a Broadway musical while they were here? Wu Yi apparently knows a few words of English, for he notes that everyone also saw "The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, and Hairspray." When I ask which they liked best, he confers with his colleagues and then tells me their favorite was The Lion King. (Well, I might feel that way, too, if I didn't understand English.) Says Zhao Hai Tao, "We think musicals in America are much better. We have a long way to go in China."

Nevertheless, the Shanghai Academy does offer a musical theater degree. "Next year," says Kerner, "we're planning a musical theater project as our next collaboration." All I ask is that they don't choose Chu Chem.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]