As the curtain descends on Silk Road Rising’s United States premiere of “Wild Boar” it’s hard to escape the suspicion that something has been theatrically lost in translation. The work from acclaimed Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong passed through several notably capable hands before coming to the Silk Road stage. It seems there can be too much of a good thing because ultimately, the production just doesn’t work.
It’s hard not to root for a show that addresses so many urgent issues at once — freedom, censorship, income inequality and sexual dynamics among them. The press packet synopsis describes “Wild Boar” as a “gripping investigation of journalistic integrity, city planning, and social conscience… When a controversial professor goes missing, an editor and his student band together to publicize the truth. Old flames spark and friendships are tested in this intense thriller about media manipulation, fake news, and who gets to speak for the poor.”
Normally, a show’s plot summary doesn’t dive deep enough to expose the production’s shortcomings. “Wild Boar” is an exception. The work is clearly crammed with ideas, including a few left out of the program such as deforestation with a dash of magical realism. There is too much happening for an audience to digest in a meaningful way. Yet, underneath the scattered ideological indictments, there’s not enough character development to lay claims to suspense or thrills. The work lands with a narrative thud.
Where’s the breakdown? As I mentioned, Chong’s work was carried out of the theatrical kitchen by a number of cooks. “Wild Boar” was translated from Chinese to English by Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith. From there it was adapted by Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly,” “Yellow Face,” “Chinglish”) and directed by Helen Young. That’s four strong narrative voices struggling for control atop Chong’s original script.
As I found myself becoming progressively lost in what the production was attempting to say, I thought several times of the child’s game of Telephone. A message is shared, then distorted through individual consumption and interpretation so that the final result bears little resemblance to intention.
The consequence is that “Wild Boar” looks and feels like a familiar form of social justice propaganda. Upton Sinclair meets Hong Kong’s urban congestion. It is devoid of emotional investment. This is ironic and unfortunate considering the authoritarian ideas and expressions being critiqued. Is the flatness a result of too many ideas or voices, or a function of idiom lost between two wildly disparate languages? I wish I read Chinese so I could look for answers in Chong’s manuscript.
Instead, like most other American audience members, I rely on the artists who touch the material to make it come alive. In the Silk Road Rising incarnation, Chong’s dialogue does not. The only truly interesting, three-dimensional character work is performed by actress Emily Marso (Agent, Karrie, Sunny).
I didn’t even realize until I sat down to peruse the program after the fact that the actress inhabits three different personas. I can’t hazard a guess as to why this is necessary, as it also seems to be for Fin Coe, who plays two different men. I suspect there are thematic ties uniting the shapeshifting, but I don’t know what they are.
At a time when American democracy is feared to be on its own quick slide toward authoritarianism, a land of the one percent abandoning the Constitutional ideals of self-government and equality, liberal theater audiences should be ready for “Wild Boar.” Instead the Silk Road Rising production feels like it’s not quite ready for us.
“Wild Boar” runs through December 17 at Silk Road Rising, 77 W Washington Street, Lower Level, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-857-1234 x201 or visit the Wild Boar website.