Quantum Theatre’s CHIMERICA brews tantalizing blend of history and myth

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Quantum Theatre presents Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Karla Boos, art direction by Susan Tsu – Maverick Hotel, 120 S. Whitfield Ave. Pittsburgh through Dec. 19, 2021.

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Senator Stoddard:  “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”
Maxwell Scott:  “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
                (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – Paramount Pictures, 1962)

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LOOKING TO WIND DOWN a politically edgy year with a rousing nightcap of insightful, timely and provocative Live Theatre? The new Quantum Theatre production of Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 play Chimerica provides that, along with some intriguing clues concerning the nature of the next flareup of global tensions not related to a virus.

The two-act drama follows a journalist’s obsessive quest to identify the legendary figure at the literal center of a world-famous news photo — the awe-inspiring image of the lone man with two shopping bags confronting four Chinese army tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989.

After the journalist succeeds in traversing the blind alleys and deliberate deceptions spawned by two decades of legend-making and learns what may be the truth, will he accept his discovery as fact?

Or will it be simply another tantalizing myth added to the ever-changing kaleidoscope of history?

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Chimerica opens with a violent flashback from 1989 when Joe, a young American freelance photographer documenting the final hours of the stillborn Chinese democracy movement, witnesses what the media will later dub the Tank Man Episode.

A quick jump to the play’s present (2012) finds Joe, now a 40-something New York newspaper staffer, back in Beijing to photograph a story on China’s recent economic surge; during an informal reunion with Zhang Lin, a longtime friend currently working as an English-language teacher, Joe becomes convinced that Tank Man is still alive … possibly even, as Zhang Lin suggests, residing in New York City under an alias.

The rest of the play is a gripping detective rundown careening through a labyrinth of scenes (go-go bar, Chinatown fish market, high-dollar political fundraiser, flower shop, executive C-suite, Brooklyn stroller park) as Joe and his reporter colleague Mel comb the New York metro area for a man Joe calls “one of the great heroes of 20th-century history”.

Meanwhile, a parallel pursuit is unfolding on the other side of the globe, a similarly feverish effort to validate another disputed truth with even greater life-and-death consequence. Zhang Lin’s surface amiability masks a deep trauma he has been concealing since the 1989 turmoil. Halfway through the play, the mask breaks apart, dooming him to suffer a simultaneous spiritual deliverance and physical demise.

Chimerica’s narrative is layered with contemporary newsbites and allusions to Chinese-American geo-political relations. It’s a fast-paced, interwoven storyline ably anchored by Karla Boos’ skillful direction fashioning distinctly individualized and realistic performances from each member of the 12-person cast.

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As Joe, Kyle Haden delivers an explosive blend of mania and covetousness fueling his Tank Man obsession. A classic artist manqué, he veers from rueful self-deprecation (“In 23 years I never did a thing that came to close to half a minute of that man’s life”) to strident idealism (“This is censorship, what’s happening here!”).

Alternately abetting and muzzling Joe’s inquiries are the sardonic Mel (Jason McCune) and bombastic editor Frank (John Shepard), shards of their own youthful optimism occasionally poking through gruffly pragmatic personas.

When Joe and audacious marketing consultant Tessa (Alison Weisgall) first meet as seatmates on an overnight jet to Beijing, it’s clear their ensuing romantic odyssey will be a volatile off-again/off-again saga, two type-A strivers never quite comfortable in their own skins nor able to let down their defenses even in the most intimate of moments.

Yet, Weisgall’s shadings of Tessa’s evolving emotional arc (especially her unscripted meltdown during a power-point talk on Chinese consumer types), affirm it is she rather than Joe who will attain more awareness and self-acceptance by story’s end.

Though we spend the play absorbed with Joe’s quixotic hunt for the elusive Tank Man, it is Zhang Lin — powerfully portrayed by Hansel Tan — who undertakes a far more dangerous exploration in search of his own moral compass and, once found, the courage to defend it against a political order determined to obliterate any embrace of personal ethics not sanctioned by the State.

Bringing versatility and range to multiple supporting roles are Elena Alexandratos, Mei Lu Barnum, Mimi Jong, Brian Kim and John Michnya, with Ariel Xiu and Tobias C. Wong excelling as star-crossed young lovers whose futures are annihilated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

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Chimerica is a nuanced work in which synchronized multi-media play a significant role guiding and informing the onstage action. Susan Tsu’s perceptive art direction, Mary Ellen Stebbins’ noirish lighting design, Carolina Loyola-Garcia’s well-chosen video and photo projections and Maggie McGrann’s culture-hopping costumes invigorate the imaginative sets by Noah Glaister that transform the Maverick Hotel ballroom into an expansive performing arena seamlessly accomodating often radical scene shifts. Steve Shapiro’s ambient soundscapes are infused with live interludes of traditional Chinese music beautifully performed by Mimi Jong on the two-stringed Chinese erhu, wood-block percussion and solo voice.

Beyond its numerous plot twists and turns, Chimerica expresses a simple idea: a world-changing political moment could just as well occur by accident as by design, put into unstoppable motion by the arbitrary missteps of a random individual.

“A man goes out to buy a paper, or a new shirt or something” remarks Tessa, “and by the end of the day, he’s part of history.”

And when the history becomes legend, write a play.

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* Chimerica runs through Dec. 19, 2021 (ticket info here).