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“Chimerica” a detective story that bares souls of two superpowers

Norman Yap (left) and Coburn Goss in Lucy Kirkwood's "Chimerica," at TimeLine Theatre. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

There are a select group of pictures from the annals of photo-journalism that, while they may not have changed the course of history, unquestionably captured a defining moment with such force and clarity that they profoundly altered public perception.

The 1972 photo of a nine-year-old girl running naked after being severely burned by a South Vietnamese napalm attack is one of them. The photo of the lone man in holding shopping bags in each hand, who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989 – the morning after the Chinese military suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests by force –  is another. The “tank man,” as he became known, became an emblematic image of the power of the individual to stand up to oppression in the most heroic way.

Who was that man, what was his motivation, and what happened to him in the aftermath of what appeared to be such an iconic act of resistance? That is the subject of “Chimerica,” British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s enthralling fictionalized account of the event, and what she imagines as the search for his true identity more than two decades after the fact. The play’s detective story element is what drives the storytelling, but what really lies at the heart of “Chimerica” is a crafty exploration of two superpowers – each with different political realities, economic imperatives and often dissonant values – who are nevertheless joined at the hip in countless ways.

“Chimerica” is now receiving a riveting Chicago premiere by TimeLine Theatre – that peerless company devoted to work that probes history in the most unexpected and engaging ways. And under the razor-sharp direction of Nick Bowling, who has gathered a uniformly impressive group of Asian (and Caucasian) actors, and deployed  the talents of set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge and master projection designer Mike Tutaj, it keeps you watching, listening and guessing for close to three fire-breathing hours.

Coburn Goss and Eleni Pappageorge in "Chimerica," at TimeLine Theatre. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

Coburn Goss and Eleni Pappageorge in “Chimerica,” at TimeLine Theatre. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

‘CHIMERICA’
Highly recommended
When: Through  July 31
Where: TimeLine Theatre,
615 W. Wellington
Tickets: $38 – $51
Info: (773) 281-8463;
http://www.timelinetheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and
55 minutes with one intermission

Norman Yap left and Wai Yim in "Chimerica," at TimeLine Theatre. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

Norman Yap left and Wai Yim in “Chimerica,” at TimeLine Theatre. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

Joe Schofield (Coburn Goss), is a neophyte 23-year-old photographer on a career-making assignment for a major New York newspaper when, in 1989, he just happens to snap the pictures of a lifetime from his Beijing hotel room, hiding his film in the tank of his toilet before his camera is seized by the authorities. His image (and remember, this is before mobile phones upended the whole profession of photo-journalism), was seen around the world.

Flash forward to September 2012, and Joe, and his reporter pal, Mel (Chris Rickett), are headed back to Beijing where Joe hopes to uncover the fate of the tank man, amid rumors that he was either executed, or perhaps is alive and well and living in the U.S. Joe’s editor, Frank Hadley (H.B. Ward), is reluctant to underwrite the story given the cash-strapped state of newspapers. But Joe is determined.

In Beijing he meets up with Zhang Lin (Norman Yap), a teacher of English he worked with in the past. What ensues is a crazy chase after leads and false leads that takes Joe from China to New York’s dual Chinatowns (in lower Manhattan and Queens), and involves visits to a massage parlor, a fish market, a flower shop and more. Along the way he becomes involved in a volatile sexual relationship with Tess (Eleni Pappageorge), a hard-edged British marketing specialist focused on China; a black-mailable American politician (Caron Buinis) and her handler (Tom Hickey); an illegal immigrant with a thriving business; a massage parlor worker (Christine Bunuan), and a Tiger mother, and interacts with Zhang Lin’s older brother, Zhang Wei (Wai Yim), a businessman who is less than fond of the U.S., yet sends his son, Benny (Dan Lin), to study at Harvard. He also must negotiate his way through a younger generation of Chinese who have little or no knowledge of the events at Tiananmen because the Chinese government blocks or expunges references to it on the Internet and in schools.

Zhang Lin has a complicated story of his own. In 1989 he was a teenager (portrayed by Dan Lin), newly married to his great love, Liuli  (Janelle Villas). They were at the square when the massacre occurred and she was shot and killed in the melee. His life has been at a standstill ever since. But now, as he watches his 59-year-old neighbor (Cheryl Hamada) – a fervent party supporter – dying of lung disease as a result of the poisonous smog that often blankets Beijing (the price for factories running at full blast) he tips off Joe, and is brutally punished by the authorities.

To be sure, nothing is quite what it appears to be here, and East-West perceptions can be warped by the simplistic assumption that if we all like Starbucks and KFC then we all see the world in the same way. At times Kirkwood’s appraisal of Americans can be snarky in the singular way of the British. And a crucial act of violence engaged in by Joe seems more than a little gratuitous. But this is a powerhouse play, sharply tragic and comic, deeply moving and always insightful.