Burning in China -- Theater Review

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Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel ("The Right Stuff," "Passion of the Christ") makes his stage directorial debut with this one-man show written by Gary Moore and starring Jeff LeBeau.

Being presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, "Burning in China" revolves around Moore's true-life experiences as a visiting professor in China just before the student uprisings that led to the events at Tiananmen Square.

Deschanel, who has optioned the piece for the big screen, clearly has an affinity for the subject matter; the show incorporates film footage he shot in China that same year.

Moore, who arrived in Shanghai in 1988, found that his students were eager to escape the repressive nature of the Chinese government. A key element of his brief tenure was his staging of a student production of a bilingual "rap opera" titled "The Great Emancipator Meets the Monkey King," which depicted an encounter between Abraham Lincoln and the Chinese folklore hero.

The 90-minute monologue is filled with colorful details concerning the author's cultural dislocation as he deals with exoticisms like the endless profusion of bicycles thronging the city and culinary delicacies like a whole chicken head in his soup.

Unfortunately, the profusion of cutesy elements overwhelms the deeper elements of the overly dense piece, which sacrifices thematic coherence in favor of anecdotes like when the married Moore was offered an introduction to a Chinese woman who was eager to have sex with a Westerner.

LeBeau delivers a vibrant, engaging performance, not to mention demonstrating a talent for prodigious memorization, but his efforts are defeated by the sheer talkiness of the proceedings. The material seems far better suited for cinematic treatment, which its director certainly is in a position to facilitate.

Venue: 4th Street Theatre, New York (Through Aug. 28)
Cast: Jeff LeBeau
Playwright: Gary Moore
Director: Caleb Deschanel
Graphic designer: Serena Fox
Lighting supervisor: Josh Iacovelli
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