FringeNYC shows: Get’em while they’re hot
BURNING IN CHINA
Written by Gary Moore
Directed by Caleb Deschanel
1 hour, 30 minutes (drama/solo show)
Aug. 26, 10:45 p.m. / Aug. 27, 5:30 p.m.
At the 4th Street Theatre (83 E. 4th St., btw. 2nd Ave. & Bowery)
For info, visit www.FringeNYC.org
or call 866-468-7619
Photo by Sam Morris
Jeff LeBeau subs for writer Gary Moore in the autobiographical “Burning in China.”
Events leading up to Tiananmen Square difficult to fathom, digest
BY ALINE REYNOLDS
This gripping autobiographical play delivers a stark account of an American teacher who witnesses first-hand the student unrest leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre — and the price they paid in their struggle against authoritarian rule.
Moore, played masterfully by Jeff LeBeau, experiences both culture shock and psychological trauma. Joining his wife Susan for a one-year stay in Shanghai, he’s faced with the jarring contrast between the American and Chinese educational systems — and learns powerful lessons about civil unrest and martial law under Communism.
The playwright’s attempt to explore the vast cultural differences between China and America within the larger framework of the Tiananmen Square massacre is a bit ambitious. Several themes — cultural immersion, education, repression, freedom, rebellion — are crammed into 90 minutes. It’s a lot to digest. But the zestful, clever script keeps you hooked.
Because of the absence of an intermission (a requirement of the Fringe), the performance feels rushed and leaves you mentally panting.
Still, LeBeau meets the challenge with grace. His performance, in which he acts out an array of characters, is enchanting throughout — with spot-on impersonations of his students and others. It feels as if Moore himself is telling you his own story in his living room. LeBeau’s frequent eye contact with the audience and his expressive execution of the script personalizes the storytelling experience.
LeBeau shows impressive vocal dexterity in his delivery of “The Great Emancipator Meets the Monkey King” — an original bilingual rap opera that Moore wrote for his students (symbolic of their dreams for liberation). Later, he expresses the trauma Moore experiences while listening to a radio broadcast about the government’s merciless killing of student protestors.
Moore gets an A for an insightful and entertaining script. But this is theater, not literature — and at times, the show doesn’t give us enough to work with to visualize Moore’s everyday life in China.
Director Caleb Deschanel is an Oscar-winning cinematographer, whose credits include the Mel Gibson films “The Patriot” and “The Passion of the Christ.” This is his first stab at stage directing, and he could have done more within the parameters of a low-cost production. He might have had LeBeau mount an exercise bike so we could better envisage Moore’s biking through the busy Shanghai streets. Sounds of gunshots later on in the play would help us picture the May 4 protests in downtown Shanghai.
The ending of the monologue, though atmospheric, is abrupt. We are left to speculate about Jeff and Susan’s safe return to America.
Short video clips shown before and after the monologue give samples of urban life in China prior to the Tiananmen Square protests — which doesn’t look all that bad. The peaceful scenes belie the play’s opening words (“Mei you banfa,” a popular Chinese saying which translates to “No way out”).
The final shot is of a smiling father and boy, seemingly far away from the mayhem of the 1989 protests. But what, we wonder, happened to the miserable students from Moore’s class who cried out for freedom, the military tanks that suppressed them, and the thousands of gory deaths that followed?