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I Heart Beijing: Exploring Ex-pat Life in China
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It is a tribute to the importance of a lifestyle and to its scale when art is created specifically for those that live it. Life in Beijing for many ex-pats has become so recognizable, so identifiable that Elyse Ribbons' attempted send-up thereof is an easy decision to understand. The very title of her play I Heart Beijing screams audience appeal, promising to deliver easy-to-grasp comedy for anyone who knows the situations it describes. But therein lies the play's ambiguity and ultimately its downfall. It is hardly original to pack a play with cultural references for the audience to chuckle at. This can be an effective foil to the main storyline, keeping the mob entertained while the plot progresses. Unfortunately, I Heart Beijing offers plenty of chuckle-worthy references but little glimpse of anything else.

The action revolves around the lives of four friends living in Beijing: Sylvia (Elyse Ribbons), an educated American ex-pat and who works as the play's connecting character. Her friend, Jon (Jonathan Haagan), is the typical fresh-off-the-plane laowai with bad Chinese and worse manners, seemingly with every Chinese girl he meets, naming them all Apple for the sake of convenience.  The most interesting dynamic in the play connects Tingting (Delilah Liu), Sylvia's Beijinger flat-mate, and Lucy (Dan Ouyang), an air-headed American-born Chinese who struggles with her multi-national identity. Tingting's elder brother, Liu Ming (Liu Feng), is a gruff but charismatic male presence who finds the group's fun-loving lifestyle clashing with his traditional sense of morality. While indulging in stereotypes can be a useful tool to highlight provocative areas of satire, Ribbons struggles to elevate her characters above this level, letting them revel in their own normality to obtain cheap laughs.

One strongpoint of I Heart Beijing is its ability to never take itself seriously, preferring to outline cultural clashes through humor and to resolve them in the same vein, never picking sides and ridiculing both worlds with similar abandon, in set scenes as well as in smaller vignettes. Haagan's send-up of the type of foreigner anyone in Beijing is familiar with punctuates the play with constant laughs while Liu Ming's first appearance is pure comedy gold. However, such moments pale against the backdrop of rapid-fire dialogue that feels staged instead of spontaneous. In this, the blame may not be dropped on the actors who do their best with one-dimensional characters, fleshed-out personalities butchered for the sake of situational comedy.

Elyse Ribbons, the play's director, writer as well as main actress, has a commanding presence making Sylvia stand out more than she should. Delilah Liu gives a mixed turn as Tingting, a girl tortured between what her brother expects of her and how she wishes to lead her life. Ironically, Tingting's fate is the one the audience ends up caring most about but Liu's swaying between independent woman and immature crybaby causes more confusion than it does resolution.

The portrayal of Tingting's protective older brother does credit to Liu Feng, who gives his character an effective dark and brooding persona. Unfortunately, every scene in which he appears depicts him as a judgmental, uncompromising prig who will tolerate no deviation from his views. It is odd that Ribbons elected not to allow Liu Ming any redeeming moment, relying instead on two throwaway comments by other characters labeling him "hot" and as "having a kind heart."

Dan Ouyang lends a charismatic air to Lucy, the conflicted yet enthusiastic Stephen Colbert-obsessed ABC. However, the character of Lucy symbolizes all that I Heart Beijing attempts to do and its ultimate failure to do so. In Lucy, we find a well thought out portrayal of a familiar personality, the culture gulf that divides East and West assembled inside one soul. Instead of capitalizing on this, it is truly saddening that Dan is reduced to the level of comic side-kick, explaining her confusion in an out of the place rant or having an orgasm that would make Meg Ryan blush at the mere mention of Colbert's name. It would have been far more enjoyable to see her interaction with Tingting taken to the next level of perception and perhaps yield some true insight but as in several instances, a sliver of originality is drowned out by a cacophony of the banal.

One actor that must be singled out for praise is Jonathan Haagan who uses the limited arsenal with which he is provided to portray Jon as a truly likeable and well-rounded character, including his rather predictable sexual revelation at the death. Haagan appears to be the only thespian fully at ease with a stage too large for the scenes it contains, making full use of a good range of movement and an acute sense of timing to lift I Heart Beijing out of the depths of rank amateurism.

Early promises of ingenious stage direction, such as the minimal furniture being revealed at the start being complemented by the characters entering with much of Tingting's furniture, are unfortunately dashed by far too many pauses in the action for prop changes.

Finally, a seemingly missed cue in the play's final scene leads to momentary confusion on stage and thus leads to a rushed and nonsensical conclusion, leaving the audience baffled as to the lack of resolution in two of the major plotlines and shows a potential lack of rehearsal time.

Ultimately, Ribbons attempts an Orson Welles tour-de-force but seems to have over-extended herself, a real shame for a writer and actress whose talent could have shone brighter. For someone who has been writing plays since high school, I Heart Beijing would have been a laudable effort at that level.

I Heart Beijing is on at the Beijing City International School, produced by Cheeky Monkey Theatre.
Dates: 15th, 16th, 17th of June – 7.30 PM
Admission: 100 yuan.

(China.org.cn by Chris Dalby, June 11, 2007)

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