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Salesman 之死

Not only is Jeremy Tiang’s "Salesman 之死I" an important document of Arthur Miller's classic American play, it is also an illustrative reminder of the cultural differences between China and the United States.

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[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

In 1983 American playwright Arthur Miller who knew no Chinese was famously invited to Beijing to direct the first production of his Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman translated into Mandarin. The following year, he published a book Salesman in Beijing with photographs by his wife Inge Morath as a sort of diary-memoir describing the day to day rehearsals as well as the events of his stay.

Director Michael Leibenluft and playwright Jeremy Tiang got together in 2017 with a group of bilingual theater makers under the auspices of Leibenluft’s Gung Ho Projects to explore turning the 1983 Beijing production into a theater piece in both English and Mandarin. They also interviewed surviving members of the production as to their memories and thoughts of that time. The result, Salesman 之死I produced by Yangtze Repertory Theatre in association with Gung Ho Projects, is now on display at the Connelly Theatre in a sold out production currently running through October 28.

Claire Hsu as Happy, Julia Gu as Biff, Sandia Ang as Linda and Lydia Jialu Li as Willy Loman in a scene from Jeremy Tiang’s “Salesman 之死” at the Connelly Theatre (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

The play is a fascinating, enlightening and entertaining account of the six- week rehearsal period and other events that Miller attended while in Beijing through opening night on May 7, 1983. Featuring an all-female cast, the play is in both English and Mandarin with both languages subtitled on three walls of the thrust stage that has been created at the Connelly Theatre which usually features a proscenium stage.

What is so memorable about the play is that while the book was told from Miller’s perspective as an American visitor who didn’t speak the language, Salesman 之死I is told from the point of view of Translator Shen Huihui, a 27-year-old Peking University professor of American literature who had never been to the United States, and updates the story to the present revealing how the production changed her life. Aside from the exploration of Miller and the cast into the now classic 1949 American play from the point of view of characterizations and motivations, Salesman 之死recounts instances of the mainly understandable misunderstandings and confusions among the Chinese cast about American life as well as their amusement at Miller’s mistakes about Chinese culture.

Julia Gu as Designer Huang and Claire Hsu as the Woman from Boston in a scene from Jeremy Tiang’s “Salesman 之死” at the Connelly Theatre (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

It turned out the native cast had never heard of traveling salesmen, life insurance, or football which they mixed up with soccer with which they were more familiar. They were shocked that Miller did not want them to wear wigs as they did in Chinese plays or apply the heavy makeup they were used to in their own plays. The realistic style of American acting was foreign to them as was Miller’s insistence that they speak at a conversational tone and bring the four-hour running time down to the three hours of the original Broadway production. They laughed at Miller’s not knowing how to eat lychees properly or that he was surprised that in 1983 electricity was rationed in Beijing during the day and the stage lighting would be brighter in the evenings. Some are disappointed not to meet his second wife Marilyn Monroe whom they mistakenly thought was still married to Miller.

The production had come about when China’s most famous playwright Cao Yu and its most distinguished actor Ying Ruocheng visited the United States in 1980, both of whom are depicted in Salesman 之死I. Aside from starring in the production as Willy Loman, Ying was responsible for the translation into Mandarin which he has Shen compare to the original during the course of the rehearsal period. It was debated as to whether Chinese audiences could identify with this very American family but the success of the production proved that their worries were unnecessary.

Julia Gu as Biff Loman and Claire Hsu as Happy Loman in a scene from Jeremy Tiang’s “Salesman 之死” at the Connelly Theatre (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

While it takes a bit of getting used to seeing the entire company played by women in Liebenluft’s production rehearsing a play that only has two women characters and could easily have been played by a mixed cast, it eventually becomes a given and stops being distracting. All of the actresses except for Jo Mei play at least two characters who change costumes enough that it is not always obvious that we have seen them before. Mei is charming as the modest, retiring Shen Huihui who not only has to translate for Miller but also explain American ways to the mystified Chinese cast. Sonnie Brown plays a gruff, stern Arthur Miller (as he was seen by the original Asian cast) in a pair of glasses, a red vest and white jacket, often peremptory and impatient. Brown also appears as Ying’s wife Wu Shiliang who drops in to one rehearsal to bring Miller a present of dumplings which he had heard were a Beijing specialty.

As lead actor Ying Ruocheng playing Willy Loman, Lydia Jialu Li is an avuncular presence whose performance deepens in the course of the rehearsals depicted. They also play Miller’s wife the German born Inge Morath in one scene where she attends a rehearsal to bring foreign chocolates to soothe any feathers Miller had ruffled at the previous day’s rehearsal. As Linda Loman, his wife in Death of a Salesman, Sandia Ang is amusingly imperious and haughty as one of China’s biggest theatrical stars. She also appears as playwright and artistic director Cao Yu and the assistant to the designer. In one revealing scene, she appears as the mother in the 30-year-old production of Yu’s 1933 Thunderstorm, using the histrionic style of classic Chinese plays at that time.

Jo Mei as Translator Shen Huihui, Sonnie Brown as Arthur Miller, Sandia Ang as Linda Loman, Claire Hsu as the Woman from Boston and Julia Gu as Designer Huang in a scene from Jeremy Tiang’s “Salesman 之死” at the Connelly Theatre (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Julia Gu demonstrates tremendous versatility as Li Shilong who plays Biff Loman (with a shaved head) with verve and panache as well as the opinionated and contentious Designer Huang who doesn’t have much use for American theatrical practices which are foreign to him. Claire Hsu also shows great range as both Mi Tiezeng playing the younger son Happy Loman as well as the Woman from Boston. Hsu makes very obvious the difference in the two cultures having difficulty playing the flirtatious Woman to Willy as he is a married man wanting to know if she is playing a prostitute and as Happy finding it rude to continue talking to older brother Biff after he has announced he is going to sleep as one would not do that in China.

The simple set design on the thrust stage by Chika Shimizu is totally appropriate to the rehearsal room and becomes more elaborate when the cast takes over the Death of a Salesman set which appears on the apron of the actual Connelly stage. Karen Boyer’s costumes beautifully differentiate the various characters so there is never any confusion as to who is who. The subtle lighting by Daisy Long always directs attention to whatever part of the stage the next scene is to be played. Cinthia Chen’s projection design offers documentary footage of translator Shen Huihui who currently lives in British Columbia taking us up to the present time. On stage surtitle operator Xingying Peng wittily but silently makes her presence felt at various times in the evening.

Sonnie Brown as Arthur Miller and Julia Gu as Biff Loman in a scene from Jeremy Tiang’s “Salesman 之死” at the Connelly Theatre (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Not only is Jeremy Tiang’s Salesman 之死I an important document of a classic American play, it is also an illustrative reminder of the cultural differences between China and the United States. Under the direction of Michael Leibenluft, the cast of six is always engaging and always convincing playing both men and women alternately. The design puts the audience directly into the rehearsal room from March to May 1983. The play also allows us to watch major American playwright Arthur Miller as he explores and rethinks a play he had written over three decades before. The fact that the Chinese actors eventually did so well with this typically American text demonstrates the universality of Miller’s greatest play.

Salesman 之死 (through October 28, 2023)

Yangtze Repertory Theatre, in association with Gung Ho Projects

Connelly Theatre, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, http://www.yzrep.org

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (984 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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