Chimerica, at Studio Theatre, is a departure from the norm, both for Washington and for Studio, which often brings DC audiences tidy comedies that have been successful in New York. Chimerica comes from London—Studio’s production is the US premiere—and playwright Lucy Kirkwood pushes well beyond the boundaries of the conventional.  Structurally complex and thematically far ranging, Chimerica explores the nature of heroism, the corroding influence of capitalism, and the cost of resistance. The setting shifts between Beijing and New York, jumping from 1989, when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred, to the present day and back. 

A smash hit in London, the play has provoked rave reviews and disgruntled pans in DC, where theatres typically shy away from politically themed work. Studio was brave to take the play on. The technical demands of the script are complex. The staging entails video elements and lightning-quick costume changes. The set has to accommodate the play’s structural complexity and allow actors to enter and exit quickly (Studio uses a mechanical band to ferry actors on and off stage, and a clever two-tiered set designed by Blythe R.D. Quinlan). By all rights, the three-hour plus running time should have been the death knell for decision makers at Studio. Fortunately, it wasn’t. Intelligent, ambitious, and intensely relevant, the play is the most exciting work I have seen in Washington in a long time.

Kelsey Wang, Rob Yang, and Kenneth Lee in Chimerica at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Lead actor Ron Menzel plays the role of Joe, a reporter who snapped the iconic photo of a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. Joe’s search for the identity of the “tank man” becomes an obsession. Joe wants to understand heroism. He also wants to claim the limelight by finding and interviewing the man whose image represented the highpoint of his career.  

Ron Menzel recently sat down with me for an interview.

Patricia Davis: Why did you decide to take this role?

Rob Menzel : When I was able to read the play, I thought Lucy Kirkwood was certainly electrical in her wit, and her intelligence is very apparent. Being of an age to know Tiananmen Square as part of my cultural understanding of things, the attraction of the play was a mixture of good characters, the enjoyment in the social commentary, and a guy— Zhang Lin, my character Joe’s friend—that you could follow. It took me longer to understand my own character.

Patricia: What have been the challenges for you with this play?

Ron: It’s a very challenging play. Scenes are very short and there are a lot of them, but each one is very distinct and demands a certain understanding. We were able to spend some time with each scene. I think the journey of a character is always challenging—to find his understanding and how his understanding changes through the play.

Ron Menzel.

Patricia: One of the things that seems challenging is that actors have to come onstage to do very short scenes involving characters we haven’t seen and won’t see again. In that short time frame they have to convey a true sense of the character. 

Ron: [Director] David [Muse] put together a really good group of amazing actors—Jade Wu, Dianna Oh, Kenneth Lee. One of David’s things in rehearsal was that we look for character, not caricature.

Patricia: What has been the most exciting thing about the play?

Ron: There’s just the excitement us as an ensemble sharing our understanding of the play with the audience, and of course the camaraderie. It’s like boot camp. Rob Yang will be a friend for life, and Tessa Klein. The backstage crew at Studio includes a lot of young people, people new to theatre. And their enthusiasm—there’s a lot of laughter. From David to Matt, the associate director, it’s a good place and it has a good feeling to it.

Patricia: How has the audience been?

Ron: This is a very literate, very savvy city, and the in-jokes about politics and newspapers, the withering social criticism is heard here. In some other cities those jokes might not go over. When I say I’m having dinner with Ayn Rand, people get that.

Patricia: Did you work pretty much with the script as it was?

Ron: The play has had two incarnations before, so the script is pretty well set. There were some British-isms that we as a cast thought maybe there was a more American way to say it and David worked with Lucy on and she got to decide which of those changes got made. She’s really good at dialogue. There are half sentences, interruptions, people talking over one another, and that’s all scripted. That certainly takes a level of teamwork. The scenes themselves are very classically oriented, but there’s an accumulation of complexity.

Kelsey Wang and Jacob Yeh. Background: Rob Yang. Chimerica at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Patricia: Have you had to rehearse this play more than you typically would another play?

Ron: The rehearsal process was five weeks long—a luxury in American theatre today. I would say it’s necessary to pull something like this apart and then put it back together again. The tech was much longer than usual because of multi-media aspects. There were endless permutations of communication, how to use the sound, video, lights. We actually never ran the show without stopping until the first night of previews. It has certainly calmed down backstage since then, but there is still a lot happening. The stage crew is the true hero of the play.  

Patricia: What do you think is the play about?

Ron: At some level, there’s an expectation of subjectivity for an actor. During previews we were setting up one of the scenes in the bar and I looked and saw all the incredible projections, and I’d never seen them before. We were too busy getting into tech and the costumes and all. So in a strange way, I don’t feel privy to the play, the total accumulation of the craft and art. I truly believe I am a servant for an audience’s experiences. And gladly. Ultimately, it’s my job is to concentrate on Joe. I think there are some themes in the play. I think Joe is kind of classically an anti-hero. But he’s a witness to a hero, and the idea that part of being a hero is making something good from your own grief.