It’s a BIG week here at Letters From the Mezz. We started 2013 off right by booking tickets to some of the best theater of the season, starting off with the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. This festival collects the best, new theater from around the world and puts it on display every mid-January. Kate and I got press tickets (Yes, PRESS tickets! We’re legit!) to several of the plays in the festival so that we can keep y’all up to date with our ever-evolving art form.

C’est Du Chinois is one of UTR’s first offerings. One of its attractions is its genre-defying structure. Part Mandarin lesson, part family narrative, part language observation, part reflection on the modern immigrant, it’s a play that, well, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Maybe I was misrepresenting the play by calling it “part Mandarin lesson.” Essentially, it’s ALL Mandarin lesson. As the play starts, one of the Public’s ushers call forward the Lao/Yu family, who nervously scuttle on stage carrying several large picnic bags. A lot of them. The family is comprised of a man and his mother, the man’s wife and her father, and their teenage son. The only English spoken in the entire play comes from the random audience member chosen to read aloud an introduction to the Lao/Yu family. We learn that the Lao/Yu family are recent immigrants to New York and have lived here for about 8 months. They are selling their “Ni-hao” DVDs, which teach Mandarin. What we are about to watch is just a taste of what is contained in the DVDs.

Thus, the lesson begin. The first half of the show is largely an acquirement of some basic Mandarin vocabulary. Don’t worry, the lessons are lively and often humorous. Plus, those large picnic bags are full of props, including dozens (maybe hundreds) of beer cans and Hershey bars, used to signify the Mandarin word for “a lot”/”very,” and also quite an appropriate symbol for American acculturation. What you should be worrying about is remembering what you’ve learned. It’ll be important when we get to some of the more personal matters of the family.

We learn, for example, that the grandfather used to be a professional actor and is now a gambling addict. That his daughter is has just found out that she is pregnant, and is the only one unhappy about it. That her mother-in-law is thrilled about the baby, but not too happy about her daughter-in-law. In many ways, while we are acquiring the language to understand the family’s relationships, they are also acquiring the language to express their malcontent. For example, one of the first words we learn is the word for “New York” and “very good.” Nearly every character has his/her turn at expressing something along the lines of “New York is VERY good!” (double-thumbs-up gesture included). By the end of the play, however, we’ve learn the words for fear, anger, and tears. Now, the teenage son corrects the illusions of the play’s beginnings, throwing off the veil of the family’s difficult immigrant experience.

We watch this family acquire the expression to reveal their experiences, just as we have acquired the language to understand them. While their expression is simple, their frustrations, fears, and disillusions are resonant. Perhaps this is why the play’s ending is one of the most uncomfortable endings I’ve ever sat through. The family throw off their personal experiences for the sake of selling their DVDs, setting up a stand right at the exit of the theater so that each theatregoer must pass under their stoic yet so desperate glare as they leave the theater. They stand by as everyone in the audience looks around, waiting for some kind of signal that the play is over. No bows? No clean “the end”? Nope. Out you awkwardly.

I love how this technique, as well as the play’s muddled opening, blurs the boundaries of the play’s reality. They reminds us that these character’s experiences are not confined to the construction of the play, but rather surround us. Some audience members bought the DVD for a price of $5.99. I really wonder if they got what they paid for.

Other UTR reviews: Hollow Roots  and 2 Dimensional Life of Her.