Since censorship of the press is a huge issue in this country right now, with the President telling his followers that anything he doesn’t like is “fake news,” a journalist about to go on trial in Washington, DC for doing his job, and the end of net neutrality about to give corporations control over what we see online, the timing seems perfect for a play like Candace Chong’s Wild Boar, now being presented by Silk Road Rising at the Chicago Temple. Chong’s play, though, set in a Hong Kong rife with censorship and governmental corruption, can’t seem to keep its eyes on the prize. It doesn’t know what it is: is it a Chinatown clone in which a city-backed corporation is secretly taking over? is it a love triangle? is it a thriller in which a corrupt government could resort to any number of tactics to get its way? is it a journalism piece about the nature of Truth? The problem is that Chong doesn’t seem able to decide, so the play is like a smorgasbord: all elements are present and they just crash into each other hoping maybe enough of them will taste good to make it all worthwhile. The problem here, though, is that the taste is just confusing, like eating an apple with mayonnaise and red pepper.
The play opens promisingly enough in a dumb scene in which an older man finishes some work at his desk and leaves, only to have a young woman steal his latest pages and then confront him ominously in the elevator. It’s a great scene not only because it sets up a central mystery—where is Mu Ne?—but also because it shows off Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting design, Thomas Dixon’s sound design and original music, and Anthony Churchill’s projections, all of which will be critical and wonderful elements of the play throughout the evening. That central mystery? Not so much. Like a lot of this play, it slips into the background so deeply it ends up a MacGuffin; people even begin to question whether Mu Ne ever existed in the first place, and through most of the second act his disappearance is only important for information he left behind. And this is the problem with this play: it sets up a lot of good things; it just doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.
Example: in a play about censorship and the corporate takeover of a city—heady topics—why spend so very much time on a love triangle story, especially one that was over long before the play even began? The scenes involving Johnny (Scott Shimizu) and Tricia (Christine Bunuan), the former student and current wife of Professor Ruan (F. Karmann Bajuyo), who has set up a dissident newspaper in order to get to the truth of what happened to Mu Ne, are well-acted but seem so off topic as to be just filling time. (Or, worse, perhaps Chong didn’t trust that she could make her complex and admittedly dry topic material juicy enough on its own, so she added sex.)
Even more sloppy is a scene involving Johnny and another girl, Karrie (Emily Marso). What is this scene seeking to accomplish? Let’s see: it keeps Johnny away from Tricia when she needs him; it has him flirting meaninglessly with a girl he knew long ago, even though the play seems to want us to believe he is serious about Tricia; it reveals he has acrophobia (so?); it allows Karrie to reveal something about her past; it allows Karrie to admonish Johnny that he should learn to take more responsibility in his life; though we only see him drink a single martini, it apparently gets him drunk enough that we see him pick a fight with his best friend Yam (Fin Coe) outside his flat in yet another meaningless scene. Want to know what it doesn’t do? Set up in any way at all the fact that Karrie has political views, a piece of information that becomes utterly critical a scene or two later. Not that it really matters: her outrageous actions in that scene are entirely forgotten in Act Two, as Ruan undergoes a character change just about as unsupported as hers.
This is supposed to be a play about “wild boars,” a metaphor for the untamed people, people with a mission, people who cannot be bought and will not fall for propaganda or whatever nonsense the government is feeding them, who still lurk in the shadows of the metropolis as the actual boars can sometimes be found in its streets. Yam keeps telling us (before actually catching one) that wild boars are extinct, and maybe (given the late scenes of the play) the metaphorical kind, at least, is. But, though the metaphor works, it simply doesn’t account for a large part of the play, which goes so far off topic that I’m not even sure that scenes from some other play didn’t sneak in while Chong wasn’t looking. She is the most popular playwright in Hong Kong; surely she is better than this. (To be fair, I suppose it’s possible some of this could be translational: the program lists two translators and an adapter, though the latter is the renowned David Henry Hwang, so you’d think it was in good hands.)
The actors did a nice job trying to explicate what was often a confusing mess, though there were a few too many flubbed or blanked lines for my taste. As idealistic young Johnny, Shimizu has a couple of great scenes, the best of which comes late in the play in an argument with his mentor, Ruan. (Now if Shimizu could just get someone to cut that drunk scene…) Coe, too, enjoys himself in his role as best friend (and computer hacker extraordinaire) Yam. He and Bunuan enjoy their best moments of the night together, as they get into a deep discussion about the relationship between the Ruans. It’s one of the best scenes in the play. As to Bajuyo, he tries to keep Ruan on an even keel throughout, so his best scene may well be his first, in which an indignant and self-righteous professor resigns publicly from the press committee over the Mu Ne situation. (There are even audible gasps from his “audience.”) It’s difficult to judge for Marso, as her two major scenes are both nonsensical in terms of plot and/or character, but if we disregard that I think I’ll opt for the lovely little moment when she pulls Johnny out onto the glass-floored balcony to help him overcome his fear. Her sense of joy and accomplishment here is palpable.
But actors having some nice moments can’t save this play, unfortunately. Director Helen Young did them no favors with some clunky blocking in several key spots, especially in the climactic scene, and the script did the rest. The whole thing is salvaged only by the tech, which (as noted) is dynamite. Wait: that’s not quite fair. I did learn things tonight about censorship and corruption in Hong Kong. So, as a didactic lesson, I guess there was some value, though it was inefficiently presented. As a play, though? I just can’t recommend this one.
Wild Boar is presented by Silk Road Rising and is now playing at Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington until December 17. Performances are Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat, Sun 4 pm. Tickets are $35 and are available from Silk Road Rising. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.