Bailiwick Repertory.

As we walk into the theater, women perched on swings or inside cages overhead inform us that we have now entered the internationally famous Shanghai brothel owned by the equally renowned Mother God Damn. (Her name comes from the words English-speaking sailors once tricked ignorant natives into believing meant “I love you.”) The proprietress is planning a dinner party, and her dissipated Anglo amanuensis is worried–for this is Chinese New Year, when the custom is to settle old debts. Mother God Damn has some heavy ones to collect.

John Colton’s 1926 tale of a powerful woman’s revenge on the man who did her wrong is no misogynist’s melodrama, but neither is it a patronizing Madama Butterfly weeper. Colton’s familiarity with his play’s milieu enables him to discuss the prejudices and cruelties of Euro-Asian relations with an insight and compassion that render Mother God Damn’s motives understandable despite her draconian methods. Director Cecilie D. Keenan has forged a sleek, stylish production enhanced by Joe Cerqua’s authentic-sounding music and Lynda White’s accurate decor. And Lisa Tejero’s Mother God Damn is spellbinding, dominating a multilingual ensemble that features many fine performances.

“China shouldn’t be seen through Western eyes,” cautions the Japanese Prince Oshima. But The Shanghai Gesture offers Western audiences the rare opportunity to see themselves through Eastern eyes, as well as a stellar beginning to Bailiwick’s new year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.