As the East Coast suffers under chilly winds and snow, a sojourn in foreign climes seems called for. But as ticket prices soar and the economy dawdles in its recovery, such vacations seem unlikely. At least the theater can offer some exotic fare—though neither China’s Soul of Shaolin (a kung fu spectacular) nor Target Margin’s Ten Blocks on the Camino Real (a Tennessee Williams bout of tropical fever) offers a restful holiday.
Those longing for a trip to China, but wary of air quality and Avian flu outbreaks, can take a nicely sanitized trip, courtesy of Soul of Shaolin. A collaboration between New York producers and China’s Eastern Shanghai International Culture, Film, and Television Group, the show ostensibly “combines the action of kung fu and the inaction of Buddhist meditation with a heartwarming story to create an organic whole.” The Buddhism receives little stage time and the heartwarming story perhaps too much, with the rest given over to a farrago of churning limbs, showcasing the histrionic and martial skills of a score of warrior monks, several small boys, and one plucky woman.
As a furious battle rages, this spirited lady (Wang Yazhi) ceases cooing over her baby and settles him in a basket—leaving her hands free to pummel opposing battalions. Monks rescue the mewling infant and subject him to the grueling training that mastery of kung fu demands. As he matures, the mother searches tirelessly for her lost son, pausing only to perform daring feats of skill in marketplaces.
Perhaps China overspent on those dazzling Olympic ceremonies, but the financing for Soul of Shaolin seems unnecessarily slender. The monks perform their routines to piped-in music in front of shoddy foam-rubber scenery; even those menacing spears and swords seem made on the cheap. Of course, these details failed to trouble the audience of rapt children and their chaperones at the performance I attended, who cheered the acrobatic displays and ignored the stage deficiencies. But even they may have taken issue with the play’s final maxim that “family is more powerful” than anything—even kung fu. Can family disarm three swordsmen simultaneously or break boards with its bare hands? Don’t think so.
Target Margin would doubtlessly be thrilled to receive even a portion of Soul of Shaolin’s budget. But David Herskovits’s company has long since accustomed itself to doing more with less, making an absolute virtue of mismatched props and unsuitable costumes. Here, they’ve used bright paints and plenty of lighting gels to transform the Ohio Theatre’s dark environs into the lurid terrain of Williams’s Ten Blocks on the Camino Real. This series of 10 surrealistic scenes originally received a workshop from Elia Kazan in 1948 and informed Williams’s 1953 Broadway flop, Camino Real (also directed by Kazan).
In some dastardly tropical clime, an American boxer named Kilroy (Satya Bhabha) washes ashore and meets with Casanova, Camille, Don Quixote, gypsies, and street sweepers. Kilroy flaunts bravado, a pair of golden gloves, and a terminal cardiac condition. “I got a heart in my chest as big as the head of a baby,” he announces to all, and the play loosely follows his speedy decline. Target Margin has a big heart as well, approaching the middling dialogue with its usual mix of smarts, brio, and very silly sound cues. Director Herskovits doesn’t trouble to make sense of the script, taking a cheerful attitude toward its poetic excesses. That’s likely for the best. As a gypsy says, “The Camino Real is a funny paper read backwards, only we don’t dare to think about it too much.”