FLUENT, FLUID AND WONDERFULLY ENTERTAINING
by Jo Holsted and Michelle Ang
Chairman Meow Productions
at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 8 Oct 2013 to 12 Oct 2013
Reviewed by John Smythe, 9 Oct 2013
Described in the menu-style programme as “not a story” and “a cheeky delve into how we see ourselves, how we see each other and who for the love of all things holy ‘we' is,” Chop/Stick serves up a delicious banquet of characters, all played with a delightfully light and confident touch by the very talented Michelle Ang.
Although it is not plot driven, there are two recurring and evolving relationships that inevitably create a degree of narrative structure, which is all to the good for an hour-long show (credited in this programme as “written by Jo Holsted” although the blurb for last year's Auckland premiere states Holsted and Ang worked together “to bring life to a script they started years ago whilst in Barcelona”).
The standard Chinese custom of grandparents looking after the children while the parents go out to work is somewhat turned on its head, in that NZ born-and-raised Evie sees herself as having been saddled with looking after her “ah ma” after her Granddad died. Instead of hanging out with her friends – especially Kayla, who wants her to come for a sleepover – Evie is stuck with being her Grandma's kitchen-hand, shopper and secretary.
“Chinese people very hard worker” is at odds with the lifestyles of Evie's contemporaries. Yet as they bicker and work together at a chopping bench, the simmering inter-generational and cross-cultural antagonism produces … something quite piquant.
Meanwhile the rather stolid Kiwi bloke Steve arranges to meet and eat with the sublimely relaxed, outspoken and assertive Melissa, whose mother is Thai and father is “from here”. They've met via an internet dating site. It's when they eat Chinese that the titular chopsticks come into play but Irish Enya on the karaoke machine proves the catalyst for some surprising developments.
Kayla is your classic minx of a preening teenage schoolgirl. We see her showing German exchange student Celine around the school and revealing her limitations with blithe comments, invariably preceded with, “I'm not racist but …” The programme note that “Evelyn (Evie) isn't Chinese enough for her Grandma but is Asian enough – without being too Asian – for her best friend Kayla” captures the essence of the central identity quest theme being explored in Chop/Stick.
Evie's neighbour Kingston is full of bravado and beautifully realised in a bang-on ‘bro boy' accent which I take to mean he's Maori but it turns out he's Samoan, which surprises me. Nevertheless his gift-of-the-gab and lively spirit make him a favourite character for me.
A Japanese student's ‘everyday' experience on a bus produces the best line of the night in her riposte to some redneck telling her, “You come to this country, you learn to speak our language.” And my Chinese companion tells me Ang's Japanese accent is “perfect”.
There's a Chinese fruiterer coping with a son who doesn't want to live the cliché. His point about Kiwi fruit and Chinese gooseberries is also well made.
An audition for a Thailand shampoo commercial, involving riding on the back of a motor bike, links the whole identity quest theme to the commercial quest for the ‘pan Asian' look.
A late arrival in the line-up is Gareth from Christchurch who is into martial arts gaming and turns out to be someone with whom Steve has a late night “online dependence”, so Steve must choose between fantasy and reality.
Isobel Dryburgh's flexible setting of a table/bench and boxes, flanked by linen drops, and Ashlyn Smith's lighting design and operation, allow the action to flow seamlessly.
Ang fully inhabits each character with a deceptive ease. It's clear she loves them all, more for their flaws than in spite of them. Her fluid physicality combines with very distinctive vocal patterns and some extremely astute writing to produce a wonderfully entertaining insight into the experience of being Asian in 21st century New Zealand.
I'd love to see Chop/Stick tour New Zealand high schools, or NZ theatres with a focus on schools' block-bookings. While there is nothing in the least bit teachy or preachy about it, it has the capacity to enhance understanding and change perceptions for the better at a formative time in young people's lives.
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Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);