The Basement
June 8-13 | Reviewed by Rosabel Tan

CHINESE New Year is about new beginnings. It’s about forgetting old grudges, and beginning the year with hope for the future. It’s this hope that frames the action in Renee Liang’s Lantern. Intertwining the stories of two generations, it opens with Henry (Andy Wong) pleading with his wife Rose (Li-Ming Hu) to come back home to him. She tells him she can’t, and the rest of play is devoted to explaining why. Their children Jen and Ken have problems of their own, ranging from their experiences of prejudice on a day-to-day basis to the more ubiquitous problems of finding love and deciding what to do with their lives.

The first half of the play focuses on Jen and Ken, and is comprised of a series of short vignettes. The faster pacing works well, exemplifying the high-speed lifestyle of their generation. At times, though, the dialogue felt overly-formal, giving their interactions a degree of inauthenticity. This, combined with the pace, didn’t lend itself well to the development of these two characters, although this is countered later on.

The pacing also becomes problematic when addressing Jen and Ken’s experiences of prejudice. Due to their length, these scenes take on a skit-like nature in which the characters are caricatures of themselves. Although these were both hilarious and accurate (just last week I had an experience uncannily similar to the grocery store scene), they also detract from the real-life implications of these encounters. This, I felt, was problematic because at its heart, Lantern is a tale not just of family, but of acculturation. This is a theme explored in more depth in the second half, which shifts in focus to Henry and Rose’s past.

Under Tony Forster’s direction, Lantern is well-paced, and Hu and Wong maintain a good level of energy throughout their 90 minute performance. Their multitude of character changes – they play all ten – are impressively handled and special mention must be made of the dinner scene, which is seamlessly executed. While playing both the child and parent role makes conceptual sense, however, a lot of potential tension is lost as a result of these character changes. It felt like the play – touted as a family drama – would have benefited from interaction between the two generations. In addition to this, both Hu and Wong are less compelling as Rose and Henry, and their performances in these roles seem weaker compared to the younger characters they play.

Lantern ends on a rather optimistic note, and Liang’s subtle treatment of themes that can sometimes be dealt with heavy-handedly should be applauded. Although the tone of the ending is necessary, it was a little unconvincing. A lot of threads in the play are left unresolved – some fittingly so – but overall it felt like the ending could have incorporated these more effectively. Indeed, it felt a little like a new year’s resolution – overly optimistic with insufficient consideration of experiences past. In portraying a story centring on Chinese New Zealanders, Liang addresses some important issues – like the difficulties of acculturation – that have, up till now, remained unexplored territory in theatre. It’s in this sense that I found Lantern a powerful production and one that I enjoyed immensely.

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