The Yale Cabaret’s 38th Spring Season opens this weekend with “Chiang Kai Chek” by Charles Mee, a show that falls tantalizingly short of expectations. A meditation on the brutality of life under the eponymous Chinese dictator and on human life in general, the play takes the form of a 40-minute rambling monologue, divided among three actors and interspersed with multimedia effects.
Mee describes his work as “broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns,” and he does not exaggerate. If you come to the Cabaret this weekend looking for simple diversion, a depiction of China under Chiang Kai Chek, or even plot and character, you will walk away disappointed. Descriptions of graphic violence follow moments of tragic beauty in a seemingly endless flood of poetry. If what you’re looking for, however, are some striking stage pictures, you should brave the cold and come on down to the Cabaret.
Tea Alagic, Nelson Eusebio III and Jessi Hill, who pull a double shift as the actors and co-directors of “Chiang,” are all first-year directing students at the School of Drama, so it is not surprising that the direction is what really shines about this production.
It is hard to imagine the lines, one unbroken monologue in the original production, being parceled out in any other way since the dialogue combining the three flows so well. It is just as impossible to conceive of the show working without the three window frames on wheels that serve as the convertible set. Even the costumes seem organically perfect for the piece, particularly the sheet worn by Tea, which serves to create two of the most beautiful images of the night.
The images created, not the playwright’s words, are the highlight of the evening. Mee’s text has some high points, particularly the moments that embrace violent language and the section that describes how men can be lured to their deaths by their love of beauty.
Often, however, the words become meaningless as the hauntingly beautiful pictures unfold in front of you. A light bulb on a string becomes a police car; a sheet becomes an elephant grave or a murdered infant; the light hitting the wax-paper-filled window frame creates a jungle, an ocean or just a square of searing white.
The actors are equally adept at using their bodies to create powerful images. They crouch like hunted animals, writhe in agony beneath a policeman’s truncheon or strive to touch each other through the window frames only to be kept an agonizing inch apart. As if the visuals were not enough, sound effects like whale song, the crash of breaking glass and the pounding of machines punctuate every scene.
Yet, despite this veritable orgy of breathtaking sounds and images, the show never coalesces into a unified whole. No overall picture of anything emerges, and the significance of all these beautiful image seems impossible to grasp.
Some of this must be ascribed to weaknesses of the play itself, but part of the problem lies in the acting. These are, after all, three directing students: While they are extremely adept at creating each picture, physical and vocal technique is not necessarily their strength, and the moments between these pictures are often muddy and confused. Voices are not as vivid as they could be, and bodies are not as tightly controlled as they must be to pull off the sort of effect this avant-garde play calls for.
“Chiang Kai Chek” is not a play for the faint-hearted or those looking for a conventional good time. Despite its weaknesses, the few truly remarkable moments scattered throughout the show’s scant 40 minutes may make it worthwhile as a different kind of theatrical experience. If nothing else, its impressive direction makes one eager to see where Alagic, Eusebio and Hill will lend their talents next.