Local playwright Christopher Chen’s West Coast premiere of “The Hundred Flowers Project,” co-presented by Crowded Fire Theater and Playwrights Foundation, appears to be already under way when the house opens: A small theater company is assembled, kibbutzing, on Maya Linke’s backstage set, which is realistically cluttered with ladders, flats and scaffolding.
Suddenly — and a number of things happen very suddenly in this two-act play, directed with expert finesse by Desdemona Chiang — the action begins. The (fictional) ensemble, led by director Mel (Charisse Loriaux, alarmingly cheery), is in the process of developing a play about the Chinese Revolution called, yes, “The Hundred Flowers Project.”
More than that, the collaborators are aiming to meld their own 21st-century, Facebook-and-smart-phone-enabled zeitgeist with the forces that “congealed” — a catchphrase the group latches onto with alacrity — to lead to Mao’s deadly Cultural Revolution.
In the script they’re developing (by downloading their ideas and dialogue onto Google Docs, recording scenes via video camera and cellphones, etc.), it’s OK for Mao to say he went to a U2 concert, because the performers are blending the two places and eras — 20th-century China and 21st-century America — with a view to deconstructing, or perhaps obliterating, history even as they compulsively archive it.
Complex relationships emerge, partly overheard and glimpsed during rehearsal breaks as private tete-a-tetes are projected onto onstage flats: Actor Mike (a vulnerable, appealing Wiley Naman Strasser) is struggling to maintain the connection to his new wife, Julie (an equally appealing, focused Cindy Im), who’s an uneasy observer. She’s not, as she says, a “theater person.” Mike’s co-actor and former girlfriend, Lily (the wonderfully intense Anna Ishida), is a threatening presence. Alliances form and fragment among Mel and the others (played by Will Dao and Ogie Zulueta).
Eventually, the group’s dramaturgical concepts of “erasing history” and of “a country of only beginnings” start, insidiously, to parallel and even subsume their own process.
With a scenario this full of surprises, you don’t need to know much more, except that Chen’s vision — linking the power of Mao’s reign with Facebook’s dominance — is at once hilariously satirical and ominous. Aided by Wesley Cabral’s effective video design, “The Hundred Flowers Project”— the play and the play within it — becomes increasingly surreal.
True, the ending is too drawn out for maximum impact. But that’s a minor complaint. Again, Crowded Fire Theater (co-presenting with Playwrights Foundation, where the script was developed) has made its mark as an experimental company.