Subtle Body – Absorbing Play, Acting Issues

1702. British Doctor John Floyer (Michael Zlabinger) has taken wife, Charlotte (Stephanie Wright Thompson) to China in order to learn about indigenous medicine. Floyer plans to be the first to illuminate Oriental methods and to write a book he’s calling: A Scientific Examination of the Medical Practices of the Chinese People. The doctor is as rigid as his title. He believes only what he’s been taught and that which can be empirically proven.

English is translated into Chinese projected on a screen above the set, just as spoken Chinese is translated on screen into English. While the former will be elusive to most, Chinese to English is often amusing as the translator attempts to ameliorate a situation by hedging.

Three months into the couple’s stay, unable to secure an interview with a local counterpart, Floyer has used up Charlotte’s dowry and been financially cut off by her father for lack of producing either a book or the gentleman’s daughter. Suspicious of everything foreign, he eats only noodles and has little contact with the culture. Poor Charlotte, as a woman of her century, is stuck inside and alone. She’s traveled abroad in hopes of being her husband’s secretary and inspiration, but seems to be neither. Nor is her loneliness assuaged by the intimacy she craves. Floyer is a cold fish. Only English speaking Translator Wang (Johnny Wu) offers occasional sympathetic contact.

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At last Translator Wang manages to arrange a meeting with the respected Doctor Zhang (Ya Han Chang.) “I need a woman,” Floyer says to Charlotte referring to a female body Zhang might examine in addition to his own. She interprets this to mean romance/sex. What follows is a scene of clever double entendre emphasizing the distance between them. Even bathing her husband elicits no response. Her distress is palpable. Charlotte wants to go home.

Dr. Zhang utilizes “pulse diagnosis” accurately reading the health of both Floyer (increasingly poor due to limited diet) and Charlotte (recently had malaria, “too much heat in the heart.”) His theories seem like nonsense to the pompous Floyer, while the westerner is considered a “Barbarian” by Zhang. In the process of examination, the sight of the young woman’s ankle, scandalous in China, moves Translator Wang who is clearly attracted to Charlotte. She too is attracted. Flirtation is begun by her asking him to teach her the word for “orange.”

The two doctors continue to meet with surprising outcome, Charlotte finds an unusually brave resolution to her isolation, Translator Wang goes against all social laws to keep the western woman in his life, while his wife (Ya Han Chang) gains unexpected status and companionship.

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Playwright Megan Campsi’s narrative is both emotionally and historically credible. Characters are well, if briefly drawn, the doctors’ exchange particularly deft. Intriguing and effective format utilizing readable translations and spoken corrospondance back home in addition to character exchange, adds immeasurably. Would that actors measured up.

Michael Zlabinger (John Floyer) appears to be playing farce, alienating himself from the story all but immediately. His British accent is terrible. Stephanie Wright Thompson (Charlotte Floyer) has a bad habit of over gesticulating during letter writing, lacks heat, and never seems quite present. Johnny Wu (Translator Wang) is rarely believable, though in fairness he has little against which to play. Best moments are with the able Ya Han Chang.

Ya Han Chang (both Doctor Zhang and Translator Chang’s wife) is terrific in both roles. She imbues characterization with impatience and wry humor (the doctor) and patient calculation (the wife.) Each has its own distinct physicality. Without hat and exaggerated mustache, watching her expressive face is a pleasure.

Director Michael Leibenluft never brings three of his four actors to life. Choreographer Megan Kendzior creates a marvelously balletic sex scene. Cate McCrea’s minimal, bamboo Scenic Design and curious props work wonderfully as do Eric Sluyter’s Sounds and  Mary Ellen Stebbins Lighting. Isabelle Coler’s Costume Design is well conceived by looks poorly executed.

I wish this piece better casting next time.

Photos by Erik Carter
Opening: Stephanie Wright Thompson, Michael Zlabinger, Ya Han Chang, Johnny Wu
2. Stephanie Wright Thompson, Johnny Wu
3. Stephanie Wright Thompson, Ya Han Chang

Gold No Trade presents
The Subtle Body by Megan Campisi
Directed by Michael Leibenluft
With Michael Zlabinger, Stephanie Wright Thompson, Johnny Wu, Ya Han Chang
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Through March 1, 1015

About Alix Cohen (740 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.