‘Generation’: Interesting Idea, No Follow Through
Sci-Fi Show Starring MIT and Harvard Graduate Students Lacks PolishBy Lance Nathan
Written and directed by Chen-Hsiang Yeang G
Starring Wen Huang, Ying-Hua Chen, Shu-Han Huang, Clement Chu, Morris Huang, Bruce Yu, Amber Tan G,
Chen-Hsiang Yeang, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, directed his play Generation last weekend in Kresge Little Theatre. The ambitious script follows several generations of a single family through a dystopian and post-apocalyptic setting, alternately exploring their particular lives and larger philosophical questions.
Unfortunately, the production fell short in a number of ways. Faced with a difficult script, the actors did the best they could, but the shortcomings of both the writing and the technical work often prevented the work from reaching the heights to which it aspired.
The first act of the play concerns Ap (Wen Huang) and his wife Beca (Ying-Hua Chen), a cyborg created as part of a government project to awaken the spirits of computers. After her trial, she and her husband are cast out of the city and forbidden from touching any machine again. Somehow (how is not quite clear), Beca becomes human, and she teaches Ap the “lost art” of dreaming, enabling him to make a living as a performer reciting his dreams at a nightclub owned by June (Shu-Han Huang).
Ten years later, when martial law is declared, June sends Ap, Beca, and their two children Big (Clement Chu) and Little (Morris Huang) back to the city to see Ap’s mother. They never arrive; the children are separated from their parents and play a war-simulation video game.
In the second act, we learn that a nuclear war occurred just as the first act ended; Big (Wen Huang again) and Little (Bruce Yu) hypothesize that it was their game that caused it. As they crawl through the landscape trying to survive, Big drinks from radiation-poisoned water and becomes female (Amber Tan). Big and Little live as savages until, having become lovers, they agree to build a house and cultivate plants to aid the return of civilization. Nothing grows for nine months, until Little, unable to sleep, talks to a passing monk -- her uncle Chi (Paul Chai), though neither of them knows of the relationship -- who offers her a pill that will end her life as a sacrifice for the land, while allowing her children to be born. Her male self tries to stop her, but after a discussion they agree that it is for the best, and the play ends with Little waking up to discover the crops in full bloom and his sister gone, with their five children -- from infant to age ten -- in her place.
Yeang’s script, combining mysticism with science and surreal humor with human drama, shows great promise. Frankly, however, it needed another rewrite before being staged. Sometimes, the problem was with the English -- one notable line in the second scene was “What does all of this matter with me?”
But the problems with the writing went deeper than the occasional garbling of syntax. The first act, for instance, is set in a totalitarian society (“Orwellian,” the publicity tells us, though it was more reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World science-over-nature setting), hinging on a project to create a cyborg. Guards stand impassive and speak in monotones, citizens recite their identification numbers to disembodied voices. Nevertheless, people use cell phones and PDAs, and refer to the “Department of Defense”; one guard even looks at a pocket watch. In a science fiction milieu, these pieces of technology and terminology, which should be long archaic, are jarring.
The first act contains a number of philosophical digressions on the nature of humanity, difficult to assimilate and in many ways distracting from the story. Real passion lurks in the trial of Beca, the cyborg, and in her husband Ap being detained to prevent him from testifying in her defense. The emotions feel dampened, however, because Ap’s interrogator speaks at length on the nature of dreams and humanity. The philosophy, which comes across as a treatise to be considered along with the plot but not part of it, slows down the show.
This type of pacing problem, in fact, permeates the show, and constitutes what may be the largest flaw with the script. The play opens with Ap visiting Beca in prison, but before he can see her he must recite his ID number, and hers, and a few more numbers, none of them shorter than twenty digits. Though this may set the scene, it also results in a slow pace for the entire opening scene.
In a similarly bad decision, the second act begins with Big and Little, blind from radiation, talking for ten minutes before suddenly regaining their sight. On the stage, this meant long monologues in pitch darkness, followed by a bright light pointed out from the stage, blinding the audience. The appropriateness of the effect does not change the fact that the scene becomes boring and ends with severe irritation.
In contrast, there are many aspects of the story that the script does not explore sufficiently. After Beca’s transformation from cyborg to human, she becomes a background character to Ap and June, bearing and then looking after the children but doing little else. Big’s change from male to female is startling at first, but accepted without comment after (except for a nice moment when, starting to dance, both Big and Little try to lead). Big and Little’s relationship is first mentioned in an offhand comment, with no exploration of the decisions that led to their incest.
Of course, a strong production can often overcome a weak script. In this case, unfortunately, the production was not quite up to the task. There were certainly moments where it was, where the staging was enthralling enough to overcome the writing, and even scenes in which the writing was faultless. These moments, however, were not consistent enough to save the show.
Many of the actors gave fine performances; Shu-Han Huang, for instance, gave June more depth than any other character outside Ap’s family. Wen Huang, too, displayed a nice versatility as both Ap, usually quiet and innocent but with a melodramatic streak, and his son Big, stronger and more relaxed. Clement Chu and Morris Huang interacted perfectly as the young brothers, a little scared at the separation but quickly fascinated by a forbidden game. And Amber Tan as Big and Bruce Yu as Little worked together well, each showing their own sort of strength and dedication.
However, even at their best, the cast could not overcome the limitations of the script and the technical work. As noted before, some of the staging worked wonderfully. When Big emerged from the water with his back to the audience and his face covered, finally turning at Little’s insistence to show that he was female, the effect was breathtaking. The video game, in which two armies of warriors face off, also played well, with eight leopard-print-clad combatants clashing in stylized battle movements.
But moments like these tended to be exceptions. The trial scene involved a number of different locations at once -- Ap’s detention cell, the courtroom, some flashbacks with Ap and Beca-which occupied five circles of light on the stage, but the settings moved from circle to circle as if the director needed a way to keep the actors moving. Some effects occurred behind a white sheet, the action visible as colored shadows, and while this worked for the poisoned watering hole, it did not for Beca’s post-trial memory wipe: the shadows were doubled by the lights, making the movements hard to distinguish.
The lighting and sound were also uneven. Chen-Pang Yeang’s sound design was not problematic, but the sounds were invariably too loud and cut off abruptly rather than fading. Sing-Ming Ho’s light design tended toward the garish, sometimes appropriate for the dystopian mood, but sometimes not: June, when sitting at her desk in the nightclub, was lit half in red and half in green. The circles of light were effective, except when they lit an actor from the chin down. The infrequent use of the spotlight was not too bad, except when it shone directly on Ap’s reflective gold cloak during his dream performance -- a problem as much with Yu Chen and Chia-Chin Cheng’s costuming as the lighting.
In the end, what Generation needed most was more polish. The script clearly shows promise, and the performance had all the elements necessary for a successful show. With more time to fix the pacing of the script and more practice with the lights, sound, and scene changes, this might have been an excellent production. Instead, it was merely unpolished and confused, with flashes of excellence showing the potential lying underneath.