Sunday, September 23, 2018

"You Mean to Do Me Harm"

You Mean to Do Me Harm
Christopher Chen

Katie Rubin, Jomar Tagatac, Charisse Loriaux & Cassidy Brown
When during a dinner party between two married couple a memory is shared of a camping trip (somehow involving a log, three squirrels, and Harry Potter) between the husband of one pairing and the wife of another, the seeds of “the camping incident” are firmly planted.  What started as a funny, little, one-minute story somehow in the days/weeks to come grows into a “camping war,” taking on new dimensions of importance of “Camping Gate” and the “Camping Missile Crisis.”  That each couple is a mixed Caucasian, Chinese-American pairing adds new complexities and subtle suspicions as mounting tensions lay bare raw cultural differences and possible racial-stereotyping – all leading to an international crisis between and among all four.  And all the time in Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm, neither the four principals on stage or any of us in the audience is ever quite sure what is actually being said in private, what is being overheard, and what is being played out in some other dimension.  Bill English masterfully directs the San Francisco Playhouse main-stage production of last year’s Sandbox Series world premiere with a tantalizing edge bordering somewhere between a who-done-it mystery, a spy thriller, and a psychological drama.

Jomar Tagatac, Katie Rubin, Charisse Loriaux & Cassidy Brown
When we join the dinner party as it has moved into post-dinner chit-chat over drinks, there are already some silent double-takes and looks of shared half-smirks as Daniel (born in Shanghai before immigrating with his parents as a toddler) probes Ben about his professed knowledge of China as an online content guy just hired into Daniel’s company.  The two volley terms like China “observer,” “dabbler,” or perhaps even “expert” to describe Ben’s knowledge, with somehow the term of Ben as “White China” coming up.  But that and other overall innocuous but still somewhat uneasy discussions do not have the lasting impact of the seemingly friendly venture into “nostalgia” of the squirrel and camping story.  That Lindsey, Daniel’s Caucasian wife, and equally Caucasian Ben have a shared history in the California redwoods near Emerald Lake (during a time when they in fact once dated) seems news to both Daniel and Ben’s wife, Samantha, who was born in the U.S. of first-generation, Chinese parents.

Angrette McCloskey has created a rather sparse but highly stylized set where a couple of chairs and a table all that occupy a center stage with light-lined ramps on either side leading up to a back stage that can be traversed from one side to the next.   Above each ramp, mirrored ceilings hang at an angle to reflect those on the ramp while in the back, two huge, redwood trunks lie in the air parallel in front of a wall-filling projection screen.  The lighting of Kurt Landisman adds to the surreal feeling of the stage, with sudden, blinding flashes accompanied by electric-sounding static announcing the sudden and rather frequent scene changes.  Those sounds are just part of Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s well-timed, well-executed sound design, while his vibrating projections of forms and shapes aid in the scene switches.  His projections of scenes combine with Mr. Landisman’s lighting to establish sometimes beautiful, sometimes stark, and sometimes eerie backdrops to the conversations taking place – conversations that shift in pairings as each scene change occurs.

Katie Rubin, Cassidy Brown, Jomar Tagatac & Charisse Loriaux
This entire creative team works in harmony with the direction of Bill English to give the series of ensuing, two-person meetings a sense of mystery and other-worldliness.  When any two of the four principals are in conversation on the central stage, the other two are somewhere on either the ramps or the back, intently watching.  At first, they appear to be observing in frozen positions and blank, facial expressions; but increasingly, one notices subtle and then more and more obvious reactions to the conversations below them.  As the play’s ninety minutes pass deeper into the conversations that become ever more confrontational for a variety of reasons and revelations, the two non-speakers become more active players in the present conversation in ways fascinating, surprising, even slightly disturbing.  The levels and channels become multiple-dimensional of what is being communicated in the two-way, rapidly proceeding, paired conversations.

In fact, the word “channel” becomes an even more frequent visitor to appear in the conversations than the oft-appearing word “camping.”  There is mention of a “hidden channel” as Daniel says, “I can see him (Ben) seeing us seeing him.”  As pairs try to unravel what is real and what is not about their various relationships on both a personal and a professional basis, who is to blame becomes a topic, with sometimes any two claiming to “be on the same channel” or one finally asserting “on some channel, I can see everything, can’t you?”  Playwright Chen and Director English corroborate deliciously to involve us in an unraveling of past, present, and evolving relationships where no one – including us – can be quite sure what shoe will drop next nor what is really happening and what might just be all in someone’s imagination.  And all along, cultural assumptions and misassumptions keep finding their ways into the already tension-filled conversations.

The sense of incredulity that permeates each person who is trying to figure out what is real and what is not about what others are saying in confidence or in passing is further enhanced by each person often repeating the last word the other person just said with a question mark implied in the vocal tone used.  The director beautifully employs short, pregnant pauses in between and around these repeated words, with the actors often having sustained looks that are somewhere between stun, amusement, inquisitiveness, and incredulousness.  This sequence repeats itself many times throughout the entire evening and adds to the sense of searching for the real meaning of what is going on.

Katie Rubin & Charisse Loriaux
This is truly an ensemble piece where each person of the talented cast has a chance to shine in multiple dimensions along a wide range of emotional expressions.  There is no one star; all equally contribute to deliver over and again knock-out punches of winning performances.  The ongoing rub of her neck along with some not-quite-silent huffs and puffs (Katie Rubin as Lindsey), an eyebrow that raises just at the moment his lip turns cynically upward (Jomar Tagatac as Daniel), his puppy-dog boyishness eventually giving way to outbreaks of maniacal madness (Cassidy Brown as Ben), or her sense of sophisticated calm losing ever so methodically its coolness as she becomes passionate about her views and feelings (Charisse Loriaux as Samantha) are just a few examples of the ways these individual actors take the playwright’s words and the director’s guidance and create a story spellbinding.

If ever I have seen a play recently that my immediate reaction is “I need to see this one again,” it is this San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm.  I cannot swear that I walked away with a full understanding of what just happened, but the mastery of the mystery is having a magnetic effect on me, luring me back to see exactly who is doing harm to whom, and why.  I have my own theories.

Rating: 5 E

You Mean to Do Me Harm continues through November 3, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Ken Levin

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