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May 4, 2009 | by  | in Theatre |
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Lantern is Renee Liang’s first play and is an attempt to explore “all the joy and pain of being a family.” The framework for this familial fable is the Chen family coming together to celebrate Chinese New Year. It is apparent that parents Henry and Rose, and their children, Ken and Jen, have had a troubled year, and their various trials, traumas and tribulations are revealed in a series of vignettes—both of recent events and memories of a more distant past.

The members of the Chen family—as well as a supporting cast of smaller characters—are all played by actors Li-Ming Hu and Andy Wong, who slip from role to role with dexterity and dedication. The differentiation between these characters is consistent, and the performances are committed, but I must admit I found the beginning of the play rather confusing as it took me time to comprehend the different physical and vocal signifiers the performers were using to delineate one character from another. The smaller roles added a pleasurable comedy, but I felt that the show as a whole could have benefited from having four actors to play the four main roles. I failed to see the dramaturgical significance in tying Rose/Jen and Henry/Ken together by having the parts performed by the same actors.

The design of the show was cohesive and well conceived. The stage was adorned with large swathes of fabric in red and neutral tones (cannily hiding the Hedda Gabler set which was lurking behind)—a palette that was maintained throughout. Similarly the approach to costuming was one of understated neutrals, which worked to support the multiple character changes. The set pieces evoked a middle class New Zealand family home with disarming simplicity—and this particular spare, minimalist intimacy worked well in the BATS space. The action was interrupted on two occasions for slight set changes—one wondered why these had not been made a part of the action—or perhaps they were supposed to be an opportunity for emotional reflection?

On the whole I think this show suffered from a heavy-handed execution. Much of the conflict and dramatic tension was lost due to the weighty moments being so heavily anticipated—and so laboured when they finally arrived. The significant props were endowed with so much significance that they lost all emotional effect. Similarly the moments of conflict and resolution between the characters seemed equally predictable and overstressed. Ken’s New Year speech to his family was the only speech in the final act that contained a surprise.

That said, there were moments of absolute joy and hilarity within the script, and some caricatures of racial stereotypes within New Zealand that were bitingly sharp. For me the most successful moments of this play were the incidental characters who were unapologetically comic. In these moments you could see the actors stretching out and enjoying the performance—which gave us, the audience, leave to do the same.

Director by Tony Forster
21st April–2 May 2009
BATS Theatre

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