By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Nickolas Vassili’s stage play “The United States of China” began its action, with inaction.
But I should probably backtrack 10 minutes or so.
Nickolas Vassili, the writer and director of “The United States of China,” stepped in front of the gathered crowd to give some background on the work. This was Friday night, July 8, at the Palladium at Hale’s Brewery, the first of three nights for the play. He explained that he was inspired to write from the film “Network,” invoking the famous line from the film, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” He explained that he did not mean for his play to address the United States vs. China, so much as the inner conflicts within us all, in particular that between obligation to country and obligation to loved ones, including oneself.
He explained that we’d have to forgive certain technical problems, including actors stumbling over their lines, because they hadn’t had enough time to rehearse. His leading man had quit, with only eight days to go before opening night.
He explained, amplifying comments in the program that he’d brought the play to the Palladium because Taproot Theatre, where he’d tried to rent a stage, told him, “Upon reviewing the script, we don’t believe this would be an appropriate production for our venue.” He then tried to stage it at the Cornish Playhouse, where, he said, the Playhouse signed a contract with him in May. They abruptly cancelled the show and refused to say why. “We have recently learned that one of Cornish College’s concerns was that we would use Caucasian actors and paint their faces so as to appear to be Asian Americans,” said Vassili.
Scott Nolte, Taproot’s Producing Artistic Director, responded via email, “Mr. Vassili approached us and applied to rent our smaller space, which always includes submitting scripts. While some of his rental details were being discussed — and before a contract was written — we also read his script and found it incompatible with our … mission and brand. Our plan was to rent to other theatres in hopes of mutually building audiences. We didn’t see a good audience match, opted not to host the production of the play Mr. Vassili wrote, and wished him well in finding a better host.”
Rosemary Jones, Cornish Director of Communications, said that Vassili “was in a rental contract dispute at the Cornish Playhouse. Several members of the staff tried to reach out to him and help resolve the issues, including a meeting on June 17 at the Playhouse that would have allowed him to go forward with his production as he wished. By his choice, Vassili left Cornish Playhouse to mount his production elsewhere after demanding the return of his deposit (which was given to him that day).”
Vassili explained that some of the folks sitting in the audience were actually members of the cast and their job was to shout during the onstage courtroom proceedings, which take up much of the play. He invited the regular audience members to join in. What followed was one of the most impassioned plays I have ever seen. With the maestro warning us that anything from anyone in the space could be part of the production, suddenly everything seemed to be part of the production — even offstage, enigmatic actions.
Now back to the inaction.
The lights-up action of the play begins with the lights slowly coming up on two men, one short and white-haired, one much taller and dark-haired. They stand motionless, lights full up, for several minutes, while a sarcastic patriotic song plays. Only at the end of the song did the action start.
The actors did frequently forget their lines. The onstage jail cell, where the female lead spent much of her time, was placed extreme stage right, making it difficult for people on the opposite side to see much of that action. Vassili is fond of humor at the expense of American television and film, so references from American popular culture, especially movies and shows devoted to the courtroom, peppered the dialogue.
Hayley Orr, the female lead, played Miriam Hopkins, a terrorist. At least, she’s been branded a terrorist by the newly-established United States of China. A long, tedious backstory (from the jail cell) explains how China took over the United States by offering to forgive its debt, a deal signed by Obama after he, impossibly, repealed the Twenty-Second Amendment and got himself elected to a third term. So Obama comes in for a lot of bashing, but America got itself into trouble first, with all the bankers.
Vassili apparently wants to talk about an inner war, within the self, but he’s turned Hayley Orr into a shrill, shrieking racist and would-be killer. She spouts hatred for anyone and anything Chinese at any opportunity, and at one (thankfully not realistic) point, she defaces on the courtroom floor. I felt hard-pressed to feel any sympathy for her and her ridiculous reasoning, or her out-of-control emotions, which left the play, as a whole, a hard sell.
Eric Wu, as the prosecutor determined (after much tedious legal rigmarole) to send Orr away for good, or at least discredit her, proves a commanding presence — tall, thin, with excellent posture and projection, gifted with long fingers granting grace to his emoting. Alas, along with the other players, he’s in the service of a nonsensical construction. The characters aren’t people, they’re debate points. The narrative proves neither realistic, nor a workable parable. All is volume.
Occasional moments of tenderness blossomed, reminding us that even in the midst of extremes, compassion and empathy is possible. I cherished those few moments. I felt frustrated by how the bash and slash of the rest, swept those moments away. In the end, I could not believe that Vassili’s proclaimed ends justified his means.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.