No Foreigners is crammed with innovations and ideas about identity
Created by Hong Kong Exile and fu-GEN Theatre. Produced in association with Theatre Conspiracy. At the Cultch’s VanCity Culture Lab on Thursday, February 8. Continues until February 17
No Foreigners is bursting at the seams with interesting ideas and cool ways of presenting them. But in trying to accommodate too many threads, the show becomes a frustrating viewing experience.
The text, by David Yee, follows a character called the Foreigner who lives in an Asian mall, a Canadian who’s trying to learn how to be Chinese enough to satisfy the Hong Kong shopkeeper who wouldn’t let him into her store. He meets a woman named Sodapop who becomes his sifu, providing inspirational quotations and prescribing a “diet for optimal chi” that includes Dan Dan noodles and chicken feet. He also stands to inherit a fortune from his Hong Kong grandfather if he can discover a secret password.
That’s the skeleton of the story, but the show tries to pack enough meat for at least three bodies onto those bones. There’s a lot of self-mocking wit in the Foreigner’s quest, along with informational sidebars and visits to specific businesses at the mall, like the electronics store trying to drum up business by creating a website that lists all its inventory as “out of stock online—available in store”. And there are supernatural elements like the Moth Museum, where the central character communes with the dead.
But there’s very little to connect with emotionally. Performers Derek Chan and April Leung are disembodied voices and technologists for most of the show, creating various tableaux by manipulating miniature figures, two video cameras, and five downstage monitors, and then compiling and projecting the images onto one big screen. These projections are handsome, but static: the human figures are always shadows, and they don’t move. The text is sometimes spoken into microphones, sometimes projected onto the screen for us to read.
It’s only late in the play, when the Foreigner comes into the audience for an over-the-top karaoke performance, that we finally see a human face. Yes, the emotion is ironic, but it’s a refreshing break from the alienating technology we’ve been immersed in.
Experimentation is clearly a priority for the creators of this play; the program doesn’t credit a director, but lists Milton Lim as “project lead”. Natalie Tin Yin Gan and Remy Siu designed the miniatures and the media apparatus, respectively, but the show could have used an outside eye and ear to solve the pacing problems that plague a number of scenes, where dialogue is broken up by inexplicably long pauses. Lim and Siu designed the projections, which make effective use of simple elements, as well as the sound, which evokes the mall setting through electronic Muzak that is sometimes maddeningly chirpy and sometimes soporific (cue instrumental version of “Careless Whisper”).
No Foreigners addresses topics—identity, authenticity, the longing for a sense of home—that many Vancouverites will relate to. It’s innovative, and it offers many aesthetic pleasures. But in trying to incorporate too many ideas, it sacrifices the satisfactions of a clear, heartfelt story.