China Doll's foot-binding story builds to a full-on feminist tragedy at the Gateway Theatre

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      Written and directed by Marjorie Chan. A Gateway Theatre production. At Gateway Theatre on Friday, October 18. Continues until October 26

      Gateway Theatre’s production of Marjorie Chan’s China Doll is as complicated, confounding, and visceral as the play itself.

      Act 1 suffers through some stilted performances and slow pacing, which creates an emotional distance between the audience and the story unfolding on-stage. China Doll is set in Shanghai between 1904 and 1918, and Su-Ling (Jennifer Tong) is just five years old when her grandmother Poa-Poa (Manami Hara) breaks and binds her feet, promising Su-Ling that this will be the path out of poverty, as it was for Poa-Poa when her own bound feet, the tiniest in her village, helped land her a husband. Circumstances—her daughter, Su-Ling’s Ma-Ma (Donna Soares), is dead, as is Su-Ling’s father—have returned Poa-Poa to a position of servitude to the rich Chen family, and her only hope is to make a proper lady out of Su-Ling.

      But Su-Ling wants more, and her insatiable curiosity endears her to Master Li (Jovanni Sy), who secretly teaches her to read against Poa-Poa’s wishes. Act 2 feels like whiplash, so significantly does the action ratchet up. Su-Ling is 16 and has been chosen as Wife No. 2 for one of the Chen sons. She will be a concubine, but Poa-Poa is thrilled. This means a room inside the big house and a return to being a person of status. Su-Ling is a commodity, and not just to her grandmother, but to everybody, including Master Li, whose fetishistic obsession, um, climaxes in a memorably vile scene.

      And spoiler alert: when Su-Ling ultimately decides to escape, inspired by the world she’s discovered through books and plays, it’s a tragic and symbolic bid for freedom and rejection of the status quo. She won’t get far on her unbound feet, broken and rotting as they are, but it’s better than the fate that awaits her as a concubine.

      China Doll is a visual masterpiece, thanks to beautiful projection design by the Chimerik team, lighting design by Chengyan Boon, and a simple but effective set design by Heipo Leung. But China Doll’s final 30 minutes almost feel like a whole other play, and not just because of its turn towards the disturbing, violent, and perverse (though that helps).

      This was Chan’s debut as a playwright in 2004, and it still has some of those debut quirks in 2019: murky character development, plot contrivances, emotional shortcuts. But there’s something about the direction, too, as if the cast were encouraged to keep their performances restrained until the last half-hour. This is particularly true for Jennifer Tong, who shines when she fully embodies Su-Ling’s horror, perfectly conveying the distressing and grotesque reality of her situation. China Doll is a feminist tragedy that takes too long to hit its stride, but the wild last quarter has to be seen to be believed.

      Jennifer Tong and Manami Hara in China Doll.
      Tim Matheson