It seemed like a good idea…at the time.
A play about a 100 year old Peking Duck restaurant, an award winning, long running, and frequently revived play about the ups and downs of this restaurant, its owners, the issues of inheritance, management, the human condition, Chinese culture, cuisine, etc.
Performed by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, an award winning national theater company of China established in the 1950s.
And the production was to be in Washington, at the Kennedy Center, for only three performances.
So of course I rushed to get tickets, congratulating myself on finding a way to secure two tickets even before they went on sale publicly. I was sure that my wife Ellen would enjoy it and be impressed at my being au courant.
I probably should have suspected something was not exactly right when several months later I had to switch from the Sunday night performance to the Friday night one, as we were to leave town on Saturday,* and I had no trouble getting new tickets, just a week or so before the actual performance.
Nor did I suspect anything might be awry when we entered the theater and were surrounded by a Chinese audience. Of course there would be a largely Chinese audience.
When I saw two TV screens on either side of the stage, it finally dawned on me that language might be an issue. Perhaps there would be a simultaneous translation for the Chinese audience (by this time I was beginning to realize that we were among the very few non Chinese patrons in the theater).
Finally, I opened the program and read about the play, getting excited again about the evening.
And then I read, in very small type (how come there’s so much small type these days?), the following: “This production is performed in Chinese with English supertitles.”
Ellen was not amused when I mentioned that to her.
“You didn’t even check to see if it was in English?” she said with that tone that you know you’ve once again have been found wanting.
“Well,” I said, defensively, “there was nothing in any of the publicity that indicated it was in Mandarin.”
“Anyway, we can read the supertitles,” (why are they called ‘supertitles’?) “and just enjoy the ‘experience’.”
She did not seem convinced.
The curtain opened, and the play commenced. We were just back far enough that we had to squint to read those supertitles, and I knew the evening was going to be a long one. I have trouble at the movies when there are English subtitles, as I’m usually so busy trying to read them that I find it hard to concentrate on the film itself.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say that it was impossible both to follow the supertitles and watch the action on stage. So I just watched the action. Hopeless. Then I just tried reading the supertitles, but I kept getting distracted by the action on the stage, plus I had to squint so much, I was exhausted after ten minutes.
Ellen was not a happy camper.
She ‘suggested’ we leave when there was a break between scenes. I, of course, would have stuck it out and just tried to ‘go with the flow’ on stage, but having been married to Ellen for 43 years, I knew when I needed to follow her ‘suggestion.’
We left, with Ellen giving me that look of ‘you really are an idiot.’ She did say, for the second time, “I can’t believe you didn’t even check.”
I blame my daughter who recently moved from New York City to Miami. If she hadn’t moved, I never would have had to be on my own in figuring out what plays to see.
(*I gave the Sunday tickets to a coworker of Ellen’s, a young Chinese techie who just happens to be our Chinese food guru in DC. He couldn’t go and so passed the tickets on to his brother, who, it turned out, couldn’t understand the play either, despite it being in his native tongue.)