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Film Chinois and Gulliver’s Travels: Now, Voyagers 

Tales of men adrift in metaphor

Wednesday, Jul 18 2007
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Writing in his travelogue of industrial misery, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell admitted to being repulsed by the physique of the typical Englishman with his “lank ugly hair growing down his legs and the backs of his arms and in an ugly patch on his chest.” Compared to Asians, Orwell found, “the white man is generally ill-shaped, and when he grows fat he bulges in improbable places.” These observations were 20th-century reverb of Jonathan Swift’s own nausea provoked by the Western body — and body politic — as he expressed it in Gulliver’s Travels, his 1726 satire about a traveler to “remote nations of the world.” Consider his description of the Yahoos, the savage creatures that Lemuel Gulliver encounters in the land of the Houyhnhnms.

“Their heads and breasts,” Swift wrote, “were covered with a thick hair, some frizzled, and others lank; they had beards like goats, and a long ridge of hair down their backs, and the fore parts of their legs and feet .?.?.” The Yahoos are all the more hideous, Gulliver realizes, because they are mirror images of humanity. Even though Swift’s book is political from start to finish, the Yahoos — a term now used to denote the irrational mob — are the creatures in Gulliver’s Travels that push modern liberals’ fear buttons, whereas it is the tiny Lilliputians who grab the attention of the connoisseurs of spectacle and whimsy. It is also the Lilliputians, not the Yahoos, who reign over the Actors’ Gang production of Joshua Zeller’s adaptation of Swift’s story.

Zeller and director P. Adam Walsh have created a compact retelling that packs all of Swift’s bawdy and scatological wit into a 90-minute, very adult show that, perversely, can nonetheless be presented to older children. The action unfolds against a backdrop of massive, colored rags that may suggest national flags or the sails of doomed ships. Gulliver (the very likable Keythe Farley), who, except for his wife Mary (Molly O’Neill), is the only character costumed by Shannon A. Kennedy in contemporary 18th-century clothing, is a ship’s surgeon and eventual sea captain. He is first washed ashore on Lilliput, a nation of homunculi who befriend Gulliver and harness his enormous strength to subdue their great political enemy, the island of Blefuscu. (The two sides have been at war for years over the correct way to break open an egg.)

click to enlarge Farleys Gulliver (lower right) among the Lilliputians (Photo by Jean-Louis Darville)
  • Farleys Gulliver (lower right) among the Lilliputians (Photo by Jean-Louis Darville)

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Audiences traditionally love the Lilliput story, which forms, after all, the commercial heart of the comic-book and movie-cartoon editions of Gulliver’s Travels. There is an endearing appeal about the tale of an average man being declared a semideity by tiny people and the focusing of all that is noble in said man even when he’s offered the chance to behave very badly. Walsh’s version wins us over through the warmth of his staging, which incorporates John Burton’s shadow puppetry along with lighting and sound effects (by François-Pierre Couture and Jason Tuttle, respectively) to illustrate Gulliver’s prodigious size — including the enormousness of his excrement, which drops from the skies on Lilliputians like fecal boulders.

As visually arresting as the remaining three nations are, the evening never quite matches the magic or the level of human folly of the Lilliput scene, which may explain why we don’t feel the trip is exactly over by play’s end. From Lilliput, Gulliver ventures to its opposite, Brobdingnag, the land of the giants, where he becomes a sideshow freak and a plaything of an empty-headed queen, before arriving on the flying island of Laputa, populated by academics engaged in the most useless formulations and studies. The show comes visually back to life here, with the appearance of Laputians whose heads are wrapped with pulsating glow sticks — indicating thoughts that are communicated telepathically.

Until now, Zeller and Walsh have shown admirable restraint in refraining from translating Swift’s barbs about religious and political intolerance to modern circumstances. Inevitably, perhaps, instead of the scenes in which Gulliver beholds the spirits of history’s immortals, we get a history-of-the-world video, ending with the image of George W. Bush, although, I suppose, we’re free to not hiss. Then, finally, we arrive in the land of the Houyhnhnms, the wise, saintly horses who are served by the unruly Yahoos.

George Orwell, the despiser of hairy bodies, was one of those people who seem to have a love-hate view of Swift. More important, Orwell incorporated aspects of Gulliver’s Travels even as he dismembered its author for being “incurious” and “reactionary.” Swift’s attempts to invent doggerel names and words would be refined by Orwell, who created Newspeak, Oceania’s official language in 1984;Laputa, Swift’s flying island representing England, becomes Airstrip One in the same Orwell novel, and the former’s permanent war with Blefuscu matches the perennial combat of 1984’s three superstates. If the past is prologue to the future, then Swift’s “remote nations” foretold Orwell’s great dystopia of the 20th century. No wonder he found that in the early chapters of Gulliver’s Travels,“every word of them is relevant today; in places they contain quite detailed prophecies of the political horrors of our own time.”

At the Actors’ Gang it isn’t so much those horrors as Swift’s humor that is on display. Farley receives enthusiastic support from six ensemble members, whose standouts include Steven M. Porter (the Emperor of Lilliput) and Vanessa Mizzone (the Brobdingnagian Queen). Many of the book’s original religious and political targets may remain obscured in this adaptation, but Swift’s less immediate lessons about tolerance endure.

Singapore playwright Damon Chua’s drama follows in a long series of hommages à noir that have been appearing on Los Angeles stages since the 1980s, but even before the lights come up on Film Chinois, something doesn’t seem quite right at the Grove Theater Center. A pre-show soundtrack includes the credit-roll music to Kiss Me Deadly, The Killers, The Charge of the Light Brigade and — The Charge of the Light Brigade? Relax, we tell ourselves — we’re in for an evening of femmes fatales, deadpan dialogue and herbal-cigarette smoke. Lots of herbal-cigarette smoke.

The story takes place in Beijing, 1947. A woman of mystery named Chinadoll (Elizabeth Pan) shows a disturbing habit of not only trying to narrate the play but referring to herself in the third person as “the Beautiful Girl.” She soon meets an American spy named Randolph (Sean Dougherty) who’s on a mysterious mission even as Mao Zedong’s Red Army has begun its life-and-death struggle with the corrupt Nationalist government. Meanwhile, the manipulative Belgian ambassador (Frank Simons) dangles transit papers as a carrot before sexy singer Simone (Joyce F. Liu) — let’s leave it to the imagination just what the ambassador’s stick is.

For nearly 105 minutes, we’re left to figure out Chua’s intentions — and his script. All four characters meet in various combinations: They answer door knocks they shouldn’t answer, get tied up and shot at, loiter in dark corners. These are the outward signs of film noir, the play’s putative inspiration, but we’re never sure why it’s a mystery. Chua’s story is all about the trench coats of noir, so to speak, but not what’s inside them. We gather Simone wants out of China, but we also know she isn’t the story’s center. Likewise, the ambassador fits the profile of a noir hero (“a man who’s already middle aged, old almost .?.?. [who’s] often the masochistic type, his own executioner,” wrote French cineastes Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in 1955) — but Randolph is the protagonist here, a Yankee cop lost in the Orient.

The main fault of director Kevin Cochran’s production is that it squanders Leonard Ogden’s inventive set design (a raked stage whose surprising depth recedes to a vanishing perspective) and David Darwin’s lurid light plot by endless scene changes and a noisy backstage environment. This is a shame, because obviously a lot of work went into this show and the cast is committed to bringing the story to life. By the time it ends and the Beautiful Girl tells Randolph that an even more mysterious woman is “my mother’s sister,” we feel like adding, “Forget it, Randy. It’s Chinadoll.”

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS | By JONATHAN SWIFT, adapted by JOSHUA ZELLER | At Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City | Through September 8 | (310) 838-4264

FILM CHINOIS | By DAMON CHUA | At Grove Theater Center Burbank, George Izay Park, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank | Through July 21 | (818) 238-9998

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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