Footloose & fancy. Free?

Marjorie Chan's "China Doll" @ Gateway: #Time'sUp in late Qing Shanghai

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No more hard scrabbling. Now the two women can eat and dress lavishly in luxurious harem quarters. They’re even assigned the hapless Ming as a personal maidservant. Only two catches: Su-ling must burn her secret stash of books to disguise her forbidden literacy. And she has to complete her bridal finery with her own hand-sewn micro-slippers in time for her fast-approaching nuptials – a task utterly beyond her crude needlework.

But not beyond the wizardry of Master Li. In a clandestine visit to his silk shop on the eve of her wedding day, she unwraps her stunted little hooflets for him to take their measure – a scene so fraught with erotic overtones that China Doll had to specially hire a trained “intimacy choreographer,” Lisa Goebel, to navigate it tastefully.

Overnight, Li delivers her a masterpiece of embroidery – an exquisite pair of “Golden Lotus” slippers – along with one last book, a hot-off-the-presses new Chinese translation of Henrik Ibsen’s feminist classic A Doll’s House, which (we learn from a Playbill essay) was all the rage in 1920’s Shanghai intellectual circles.

The Chinese word for “doll,” I learned from the Chinese surtitles accompanying the Gateway production, is wan ou (玩偶, literally “play idol”), which well befits the image of Su-ling as she stands, motionless and stone-faced on a footstool pedestal to be silk-swaddled and bejewelled for her bridegroom.

But then Ming shares some grisly detail about the Young #2 Master’s notions of “play,” as fatally visited upon the “idol” of his previous concubine. In an intersectional outburst of sisterly solidarity, the two girls collude to stage Su-ling’s getaway. Even Poa-poa, stranded and bereft, nevertheless gifts her cane to her granddaughter as Su-ling hobbles off on her freshly unbound (but permanently crippled) feet.

China Doll fits squarely within the quintessentially Chinese genre of didactic melodrama, a rapid-fire series of vignette scenes, often barely half a minute long, each posing its own little ethical conundrum. But, unlike the arch-villains and proletarian paragons of China’s Revolutionary Opera melodramas, Chan’s characters are credibly complex, giving her actors plenty to work with.

So Tong, in her professional acting debut, evolves, in the course of just two acts over 120 minutes, from a wide-eyed, clumsy toddler to a precocious teen to a traumatized sex object to an impassioned refusenik to a prematurely haggard refugee crone.

Soares doubles as the haunted mother and the feisty playmate. Hara humanizes Poa-Poa’s domestic tyranny with a shadowed history of privation. And Sy leavens his altruism with ironic wit, a smarmy mercantile venality and a touch of guilt-wracked kinkiness.

The 2004 script was the first of nine much-lauded plays and libretti by Chan, who is now artistic director of Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille. China Doll has been produced across Canada and in Hong Kong, but the Vancouver version is the first time Chan has directed it herself, so presumably the most faithful to her vision.

And a pretty lavish vision it is, judging from the high-end production values. Set designer Heipo Leung, lighting maven Chengyan Boon and the Chimerik (似不像) video collective collaborate for a staging that is eloquent, flexible, original and apt for the subject. It’s a thicket of retractable vertical columns bundled in taut, white, horizontal or diagonal bands.

You can construe them as architectural members, but they could also be seen as phalangeal bones strangled in crippling bandages. The matrix of flat and concave surfaces provides a mesmerizing screen for video projections of everything from scrolling texts to what looks like teeming corpuscles. Sidelights and overhead spots cast haunting shadows.

Sound designer Mishelle Cuttler’s understated score tags each character with characteristic musical motifs: brittle for Poa-poa, jazzy for Li, spunky for Ming, spooky for Ma-ma. As for Su-ling, her music evolves from childishly playful to pensive to shadowed, just as her wardrobe (by Amy McDougall) transits from little girl smocks to demure chi-pao’s to silken bridal regalia to beggarly weeds.

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