The World of Extreme Happiness has hit the Owen Stage at Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn St.). The humorous tale about a Chinese migrant worker brings forth an ironic and harsh reality of China’s working policy.
Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig wrote the dynamic play with witty dialogue that has tragic undertones of the lives of Chinese migrant workers. Although there were a few issues with the acting and the character transformations (most actors played more than one character), The World of Extreme Happiness is still a compelling story that is sure to make audience members laugh and cry.
Sunny (Jennifer Lim) is a migrant worker who was unwanted by her parents and tossed in a slop bucket when she was born for being a girl. The play depicts the society governed by China’s “One Child Policy” of the past, where men were more honored than women and baby girls were abandoned or killed.
The play begins with Sunny’s mother, Xiao Li (Jo Mei), going through childbirth, yelling out funny yet painful expressions that made the audience cringe and laugh at the same time. Yet when the family realizes Sunny is a girl, they toss her in a slop bucket and her father, Li Han (Donald Li), spits on her. Immediately the audience went silent and realized the reality of this play: the “One Child Policy” is cruel and disturbing.
Her father decides to keep her only so they can sell her off when she’s old enough to get married or be a prostitute. The plot then jumps to when Sunny is older and working in a factory as a janitor. She earns money for her family so her younger brother, Pete (Ruy Iskandar), can go to school.
Here is when the first confusing character transformation takes place. Iskandar plays both Pete and Ran Feng, the son of a family friend. Pete and Ran Feng had the same voice and hairstyle, and despite clothing changes, there was no clear distinction between the two. This made it confusing for the audience to distinguish which character was actually intended to perform in each scene.
Other actors who had multiple characters changed their voices and demeanors to distinguish roles, but still didn’t perform to their full potential. Mei plays three characters: Xiao Li, Ming-Ming (Sunny’s friend at the factory) and Qing Shu (a Chinese nationalist who antagonizes the characters towards the end of the play).
Performing as Xiao Li and Ming-Ming, Mei overacted in most of her scenes. As Sunny’s mother, she didn’t seem natural with her dialogue, delivering the humorous punch lines in a bizarre manner as she awkwardly screamed out profanities.
Performing as Ming-Ming, the problem persisted. Ming-Ming is an eccentric character dedicated to making her life better than the normal Chinese worker’s life. With fuzzy and voluminous hair, Ming-Ming spends a lot of her time looking in the mirror and buying makeup. The corny character was supposed to bring an element of odd humor to the production, but Mei came across as unnatural, once again. Her actions and voice inflections were overdrawn. Altogether the character didn’t provide any humor that the show needed.
Other actors, however, seamlessly transitioned between their multiple characters, bringing a different humorous element to each one. These characters included Old Lao (Sunny’s boss), Gao Chen (an emotionless security guard) and Mr. Destiny (a high-energy performer who gives pubic pep talks to migrant workers), all played by Francis Jue.
With each character, Jue brought a different, distinguishable humor. As Old Lao, he mopes around the stage and laments at the difficulties of
working on a janitorial staff. He shuffles around and speaks in a monotone voice that delivers crude yet hilarious dialogue pertaining to the gross bathrooms.
As Mr. Destiny, Jue completely transforms into an eccentric performer who speaks out to the crowd while energetically dancing and jumping around the stage. The difference between the two characters could not be any more stark, but Jue handled each perfectly, showing dynamic acting skills.
The dialogue for The World of Extreme Happiness was rich with irony as the humorous traits of each character overlapped with the disturbing reality of China’s worker policies. Some actors rose to the challenge and were able to depict this duality, but others fell short. Altogether, the script is well-written and the actors created a cohesive play, but the play still showed minor difficulties along the way.
The World of Extreme Happiness runs through Oct. 12 at Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn St.). Tickets cost $10-30 and are available for purchase here.