Arts and Culture

Review: Portraits of women: 'The Chinese Lady' and 'Mary’s Wondrous Body'

A man stands to the side of a woman during a theater performance.
Michael Sung Ho and Katie Bradley star in "The Chinese Lady" at Open Eye Theatre in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Nicole Neri for Open Eye Theatre

Last week, Open Eye Theatre kicked off its 2023-24 season with Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady,” which looks at America’s treatment of Asian American women throughout history.  

It tells the story of Afong Moy, who is believed to be the first Chinese woman to immigrate to the United States. Moy was put on display in museums and toured the eastern United States during the mid-1800s as a living exhibition. There, she was objectified and exoticized. 

For many, it is the first time people will hear Moy’s story, something director Eric Sharp takes to heart.  

“There is weight, there is responsibility. But I have to be honest with you that I think the best way for me to do my job is to really embrace the joy of theater making,” Sharp said a few weeks before the show opened.  

Sharp’s care for the material shows through in this production. Considering this is his mainstage directorial debut, it’s even more impressive.  

His background as one of the Twin Cities’ most prolific actors of the last decade makes him an “actor’s director” — his staging is never inauthentic or forced. This material would be daunting for anyone, but Sharp achieved his ambitious goals. 

The two-person show features Katie Bradley and Michael Sung Ho as Afong Moy and Atung respectively. Bradley masterfully transitions from a young girl who is excited to participate in cultural exchange to a woman haunted by her experiences but still willing to fight. Sung Ho’s supporting performance is reserved for most of the play, but he’s given a biting monologue aimed at the treatment of himself and Afong Moy.  

The show is metatheatrical and references the audience often. The performance is staged so that audience members experience the play as if they were historical audiences for the times Afong Moy was displayed during her life.  

The show argues that from the arrival of the first Chinese woman in the U.S., they have been objectified and exoticized. Over the course of ”The Chinese Lady,” the play turns from comedic commentary to a realistic look at the history of mistreatment and abuse Asian Americans have faced in this country. Bradley’s delivery in the last moments of the play elicited outbursts of sorrow and raw emotions from the audience.  

But there is something else the Chinese Lady gives you in the last 10 minutes: a sense of hope and resilience.  

“There is a through line of hope that Afong Moy has,” said actor Katie Bradley “As well as what we can do, like actionable things ... and what her experience can teach us.” 

“The Chinese Lady” runs until Sept. 24.  

A woman stands on a dark stage with a mic in front of her.
Isabella Dunsieth played Mary in the original production of "Mary's Wondrous Body" in 2022. She returns as the titular character in the revived production currently playing at Elision Playhouse.
Courtesy of Emily Garst

Playing at Elision Playhouse in Crystal, Minn., “Mary’s Wondrous Body” also reimages historical women as meta-commentary theater. 

The play takes a crack at adapting the story of Mary Toft, an 18th-century British woman who tricked doctors into believing she could give birth to rabbits.  

The show, written and directed by Madeline Wall, premiered in late 2022 as the first show of The Birth Play Project, a relatively new theater company whose focus is on reproductive rights.  

This production is revamped and updated from its previous run. It focuses on how miscarriages and pregnancy affect the mental health of those who are pregnant, as well as the history of medical abuse. Physical and verbal abuse are also featured. 

“Mary” at times evoked the spirit of “Spring Awakening,” the 2006 rock musical that took a similarly realistic look at issues often glossed over by theater and media.  

Wall’s directorial choices are imaginative and utilize the Elision Playhouse’s stage creatively with a minimalist set and clever staging. The beginning of the play offers a standout moment in which actors sit in dim lighting and recite lines that we will see acted out later.  

The cast is led by Isabella Dunsieth in the title role. She demonstrates a remarkable power on stage, flipping between two versions of the eponymous Mary: one who exists within the story, confined to the stage, and one who occasionally steps out to comment on the story, directly addressing the audience and even walking offstage to do so. 

The show’s music is a highlight, heightening emotional moments. Eva Gemlo provides exquisite cello and delivers a powerful acting performance in the second act. The choice to incorporate the cello music into the piece is inspired, although there are times when the accompanying singing seems out of place. The lyricism felt chunky at times, and occasionally I wasn’t sure if I was meant to laugh or contemplate the message just delivered.  

If you are not a fan of vulgar language, approach this show with caution, because this show says the C word. A lot. The use of the word sometimes seems to be at cross purposes — perhaps the sheer quantity is intended to strip it of its power to hurt, to normalize the word, but then it is also used as an insult or vulgarity.  

If this is “Mary’s Wondrous Body 2.0,” I am excited to see “Mary’s Wondrous Body 3.0.” Each iteration is causing it to become richer and finer-tuned. Wall’s script is clever and gritty; with another pass, it could engage, awe and draw audiences in even more than it already does.  

“Mary’s Wondrous Body” runs through Sept. 17.

— Jacob Aloi

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.