Review: ‘The Crazed’ by Central Works at Berkeley City Club

(Charles Kruger)

(*****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“The Crazed” plays at Berkeley City Club from May 15 through June 23.)

Ha Jin’s celebrated novel, “The Crazed”, tells the story of a student of Chinese literature coming of age at the time of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in Bejing in 1989, when millions of student demonstrators occupied the square until the infamous “June 4 Massacre” when government troops and tanks broke up the protest, killing an unknown number of young people, possibly thousands.

For the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, playwright Sally Dawidoff (also a poet, as is Ha Jin) has adapted the novel into a wonderfully stage worthy production.

Central Works Theater specializes in historical dramas of big ideas, and with “The Crazed” the company has happened on a compelling combination of script, cast, direction and content that makes for a memorable and inspiring performance.

Young Jian Wan is a student of classical Chinese literature, preparing to take his exams to attend graduate school in Beijing, where he hopes to achieve a distinguished academic career. His preparations are interrupted, however, when manipulative bureaucrat Ying Peng, pursuing her own ends, requires him to spend long days caring for his beloved Professor Yang, who has recently suffered a stroke. Brilliant, yet confused, Professor Yang (previously a victim of  torture at the hands of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution) raises disturbing questions for his student about the importance of literature, the value of poetry, and the meaning of an academic life.

 Carina Lastimosa as Salazar as Meimei and Will Dao as Jian Wan in "The Crazed", a world premiere at Central Theater Works. Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

Carina Lastimosa as Salazar as Meimei and Will Dao as Jian Wan in Central Works world premiere production of Sally Dawidoff’s stage adaption of “The Crazed” by novelist Ha Jin. Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

Jian Wan’s confusion is compounded by interactions with his two friends and fellow students, Manto and Banping. Manto, a passionate believer in democracy and free speech, unimpressed and unintimidated by the Communist Party, is closely following events in Beijing. Banping, a practical boy from a peasant background, is happily prepared to join the Party, ask no questions, and take a well-compensated position in the government bureaucracy. Creating further difficulty, Jian Wan’s loving fiance Meimei is puzzled by his increasing doubts about his life’s direction.

As Jian Wan tries to understand the impact of history on the development of his own career, he struggles to make sense of conflicting values and emotions. Ultimately, he can ignore neither the impact of a trip to a rural village where he personally encounters poverty and suffering he had not known existed, nor the increasingly disturbing events in Beijing which are leading to the inevitable confrontation between students and government.

Eventually, he and his friends and his fiance Meimei are drawn into the maelstrom of history with exciting and moving results.

Helped by Gary Graves’ expertly paced and nuanced direction, Sally Dawidoff’s script achieves something rare: a play of  ideas and politics that is both intellectually rigorous and emotionally exciting.

At the center of this fine achievement are two very remarkable performances by Will Dao as Jian Wan and Randall Nakano as Professor Yang. As Jian Wan, encountering the various viewpoints and personalities that surround him, Dao is fantastic in his constant adjustments as he is bombarded by new information even as he clings to his passion for classical poetry. He is brilliant and mercurial, physically and verbally graceful, and emotionally alive in all his encounters, each of which is carefully differentiated depending upon with whom he is engaged. It is a performance perhaps best described as Shakespearean in range and impact. As the fallen Professor, Randall Nakano is heartbreaking as he loses faith in his life’s work and suffers, through memory, the many indignities he endured at the hands of the Red Guard.

Carina Lastimosa Salazar is fine as Jian Wan’s fiance, Meimei, easily convincing us of both the depth of her love and her confusion at the changes she finds in her fiance as he grows into a more mature adult. As the deliciously evil and manipulative bureaucrat Ying Peng, Jeannie Barroga is, well, deliciously evil. Wes Gabrillo’s Mantao burns bright with his fervor for democracy and justice and Perry Aliado’s clueless Banping offers comic relief with an edge. Louel Señores rounds out the (all-Asian) cast playing several supporting characters with great skill.

This production does honor to the history of Tiananmen Square and to Ha Jin’s deeply felt novel.

For further information, click here.

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“The Crazed” by Sally Dawidoff, based on the novel by Ha Jin, world premiere produced by Central Works Theater Company. Director: Gary Graves. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Lights: Gary Graves. Sound: Gregory Scharpen. Properties: Debbie Shelley. 

Banping: Perry Aliado. Ying Peng: Jeannie Barroga. Jian Wan: Will Dao. Mantao: Wes Gabrillo. Professor Yang: Randall Nakano. Meimei: Carina Lastimosa Slazar. Red Guard 1/Student/Hao/Vice Principal’s Son/PLA Official: Louel Señores.

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