BATS Theatre; The Basement (Return Season)
April 21-May 2; June 8-13 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

NEW PLAYWRIGHT Renee Liang’s* two hander Lantern subtly traverses a range of binaries: male vs female; East vs West; young vs old in a general exploration of a Chinese-New Zealand family. Clearly in the mould of Bare and Niu Sila (I read in the programme afterwards that these are explicitly cited as influences) the play at once seeks to be culturally specific and universal in its themes. It is perhaps not as humorous or energetic as its predecessors, but it is still an absorbing and at time intimate play.

The play is temporally set in the lead up to Chinese New Year and focuses on the Chen family. They are a Chinese-New Zealand family – Henry an immigrant from Hong Kong, and his wife, Rose, raised in New Zealand and their two children, Jen and Ken, who are thoroughly culturally assimilated, even if they receive racial taunts. Rose has recently left Henry, who in the opening sequence says he struggles with the Western concept of love. The possibility of familial reconciliation is raised as Chinese New Year (a time of renewal) approaches. Over an hour and a half, the play then moves through family drama, broad character-sketch type comedy and monologues to lead up to an emotional family reunion.

At first it seems the bulk of the story is to be narrated by Jen and Ken, with occasional adoptions of other characters as the script requires. Roughly halfway through the play the narration shifts to Henry and Rose, telling the ‘back story’ of their marriage. I felt the latter half of the play was less successful than the former – I wanted the action to return to the present day rather than being set in the past. However, actors Li-Ming Hu and Andy Wong play all of the characters well, although transitions between characters needed to be more clearly defined.

It was suggested to me on the way home that in its current form this play may suit four actors (two playing the children, two playing the parents) and I agreed. Alternatively, more work needs to be done to synthesise the story. The play is at once both a play about family, and about wider social issues. Currently it is well served by its brilliant ending where the microcosm and macrocosm are finally fused successfully – unfortunately it’s a little late in the piece – and these moments needed to be interspersed earlier for me. Nevertheless, the play has great potential going forward.

* Renee Liang is an Auckland-based theatre reviewer for The Lumière Reader.