Gateway Theatre
China Doll by Marjorie Chan

Dates and Venue October 17-26, 2019; 8pm (except Sunday and Monday); matinees Sat October 19 & Sun October 20 @ 2pm, Tues October 22 @ 1pm | Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond

Director Marjorie Chan Set Design Heipo Leung Costume Design Amy Mcdougall Sound Design Mishelle Cuttler Lighting Design Chengyan Boon Projection Design Sammy Chien, Chien Shanghan, Ivan So & Andie Lloyd Stage Manager Yvonne Yip Intimacy Director Lisa Goebel

Reviewer John Jane

China Doll is an absorbing proto-feminist play by Marjorie Chan and her first specifically intended for the stage. The play uses the former Chinese practice of binding female children’s feet as a central motif. The tradition, now considered to be barbaric, was approved by the child’s family in order that she would become an object of desire to high-ranking males.

Set in Shanghai against a backdrop of the final years of the Great Qing Dynasty, prior to Republicanism finally achieving overwhelming support in 1911, protagonist Su-Ling (Jennifer Tong) has been abandoned by her father following her mother’s suicide. She has been left in the care of her maternal grandmother Poa-Poa (Manami Hara), a well-meaning, but nescient guardian who insists that binding Su-Ling’s feet will eventually ensure her granddaughter’s and her own social status. Because of her lack of political and social connections, Su-Ling misses out on a betrothal to an established family, but is ultimately accepted by the same family as a concubine.

When accompanying Poa-Poa on her frequent visits to Merchant Li’s store, Su-Ling ingratiates herself as Li’s intellectual protégé. Without Poa-Poa’s consent, the pro-revolutionary Merchant Li (Jovanni Si) teaches Su-Ling to read. His progressive political stance is juxtaposed to Su-Ling’s grandmother and servant’s conservative dogma.

Marjorie Chan overtly calls upon Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to expand the narrative of Su-Ling’s coming of age story and indeed there are parallels between Ibsen’s heroine who finally turns her back on a comfortable, though stifling marriage and Su-Ling’s foreseeable future in sexual subservience.
This Gateway production is certainly watchable; though, mostly because of outstanding performances by principal actors Jennifer Tong and Tokyo-born Manami Hara. The production is well-served by the design qualities that Heipo Leung’s expansive set, Amy Mcdougall’s lavishly exotic clothing and Chengyan Boon’s dramatic lighting bring to the play.

Jennifer Tong’s performance is particularly wide-ranging as she takes her character from a precocious ten-year-old to a complex young woman crying out for a fulfilled life. Manami Hara is masterful as the class conscious grandmother. Jovanni Si brings character to the role of the subversive merchant and Donna Soares lends passion in the role of Ming, Su-Ling’s defiant servant, yet is appropriately low-key as the phantom Ma-Ma.

MS. Chan has, perhaps wisely, not focused too much on the political turmoil during the play’s historical setting, but instead addresses the harsh social structure of a pre- revolutionary China.

© 2019 John Jane