Written and directed by Derek Chan. A rice & beans theatre production. A Magnetic North Festival presentation. At the Orpheum Annex on Wednesday, May 29. Continues until June 7
With a grandiose flick of his forearm, hunkered high above a three-piece set, actor B.C. Lee rains a flurry of food flyers from the theatre mezzanine, asking with the timbre of a good showman, “Are you ready to be lost and never, ever found?”
From the whimsical opening, it’s clear that Derek Chan’s Chicken Girl wants to eschew prosaic premises, wishing instead to probe the ontological dilemma of existence. A potpourri of oddball characters and occult connections, the play is a sportive meditation on essential human questions, striated by a unique blend of wordplay, humour, and the recondite.
Chicken Girl (Amanda Sum), an insouciant worker at a fried-chicken shack, has a typical relationship with her employer, Uncle Chan (Lee): she’s as disgruntled as her full-feathered costume is old, it being a “well-seasoned” hand-me-down from her boss. Uncle Chan, of course, thinks she takes too many breaks and oversleeps. Likewise, his opinion of their weekly delivery driver, Cat (Maki Yi), is not much better—she’s literally a cat, always late, and a reckless jaywalker. Elsewhere, an intergalactic performer on tour, Supersuperstar (Marguerite Hanna), has traversed astronomical distances in perpetual homesickness, while an enigmatic Submariner (Pedro Chamale) is racked with pain deep undersea. Together, the lives of these disparate figures slowly compact in unexpected, metaphysical ways when the Submariner reveals plans for Uncle Chan.
Chan’s script, in spite of its unfamiliar settings and eccentric scenarios, is steeped in human concern. Observations on love, longing, and longevity anchor the more outlandish elements of the play and keep it relatable. For instance, Supersuperstar’s witnessing of a supernova reinforces the omnipresence of death, against Cat and the Submariner’s insufferable eternity. Cat and Chicken Girl’s longing to escape a status quo mirrors the malaise faced by many in their lives, while their latter decisions are buoyed by selfless love. Amid these serious reflections, Chan also peppers the work with alliterative songs, puns, visual gags, and a smattering of Cantonese, French, and Korean in speech and supertitles.
Sum is electric as the titular character, her role requiring her to convulse in staccato bursts of energy, choking on sputtered words. Lee is natural and believable as Uncle Chan. Yi plays a haughty Cat that personifies the species in the popular imagination, while Chamale’s Submariner is imposing in stature and demeanour. Hanna elevates the musicality of the production with excellent vocals. Set designer Shizuka Kai conjures up an Asian shop aesthetic with red-tiled roofs and wire overhang, while lighting designer Sophie Tang and projection designer Parjad Sharifi transform the same into the cosmos with projected stars and suffused shades of colour.
Although gifted with the layers of experience that feed the multilingual aspect of this production, Chicken Girl does pose a challenge to those who like to understand all exchanges—an impossibility here without a working knowledge of at least three languages. Naturally, to quote Uncle Chan’s counsel to the Submariner, “Everyone’s time is different.”