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Review: A Deal at Chippen St Theatre

By James Ong

Flying House Assembly is a new theatre company looking to make waves in the Sydney with their first full length production, A Deal. Written by Zhu Yi, a New York-based Chinese playwright and screenwriter, A Deal follows Su Li (Katherine Nheu) as she decides to brand herself an orphan and human rights victim in order to score the leading role in an on off-Broadway show. Meanwhile, her attentive and very rich real parents (Shi-Kai Zhang & Susan Young) smuggle one million dollars into NYC to buy their daughter an apartment (read: buy her love). From here, old wounds are dug up, trust in family is tested and privilege is confronted. A Deal saw its debut off-Broadway in 2017 before having a season in China. It now launches in Sydney, placing this particular production in unique air as the first time it is being performed in front of a 3rd party audience.

I was repeatedly struck by the even handed and insightful commentary on modern day Chinese and American relations. The play presents us with caricatures of both cultures (exploitative and ignorant Americans vs spoilt and egotistic Chinese), but also features a truthful understanding of how these worlds came to be, born out of the first hand experience of the playwright. A cross-cultural artist herself Zhu Yi has channeled her own frustrations towards her old and new homes through Su Li (whose name is in no way similar to her creator’s) and imbues the text with a first hand account. On top of this, quite frankly, it is simply an encouraging sight to see Asian faces at the forefront, and to have new, female-focused stories being told on a Sydney stage.

Though the plot centres on the morally corrupt journey of Su, the true focus and emotional investment lies with her parents, who are the main conduit for cultural comparison, political commentary, comedic buffoonery and ultimate heartbreak. Shi-Kai Zhang was impeccably tuned in his portrayal of the family’s patriarch. Over the course of the play, Zhang crafted a potent and emotionally affecting portrait of male Chinese aggression and misogyny, conjuring forth my own experience with the less savoury (by Western standards at least) members of my own family. Zhang had the chance to approach Mr Li from multiple viewpoints; the cartoonish father, the crazy rich asian, the domineering husband and the bullheaded Chinese patriot. Zhu Yi has written a beautifully intricate character here in Mr Li and Zhang has brought him to life with vivid authenticity. Susan Young was also strong as the shallow and bristly Mrs Li, though a tender relatability lies ever-so-slightly beneath the surface. Several barbed one liners are thrown out in her scenes and are sure to have you cackling before realising the deeply harmful nature of her critical words. A true black comedy, A Deal softens us up with the humour of sharply written insults and has the audience on board with lying for the sake of representation in arts, before pulling on the guilt strings as we realise underlying venom behind the words.

The production itself was a well oiled machine, with Stage Manager Alex Liang running a tight ship and executing some difficult lighting and sound cues with surprising precision. Despite some inconsistent pacing and wavering accent work, director Shiya Lu brought together engaging design choices and intelligently crafted social commentary to pack a comedic and political punch. It is easy for culturally minded productions such as this to be somewhat mean-spirited, but A Deal examines Chinese, American and Chinese-American cultures with even handed criticism and understanding, allowing us to examine cultural context and compare two equally understandable sets of logic, though we may not entirely agree with either. A Deal is currently running at Chippen St Theatre until Saturday, 31st August and is well worth checking out for its fascinating deconstruction of these cross cultural relations.

Photo Credit: Kelvin Xu - Luky Studio

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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