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by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Candace Chong

At: Silk Road Rising at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St. Tickets: $35. Runs through: Dec. 17

Every dictatorship boasts of the peace and stability enjoyed by its subjects, compared with the dissent-fueled unrest prevalent in unruly democracies.

After violent upheavals of foreign invasions and internal strife, what person wouldn't willingly sacrifice a few individual rights in exchange for the protection of firmly established leaders? As recently as 1997, when the British colonial city of Hong Kong ceded its sovereignty to mainland China, the first task of the new regime was to eradicate evidence of its predecessors. Even so, citizens long accustomed to Western ways were unprepared for the efficacy at carrying out this duty offered by the available technology.

Our story opens with the sudden disappearance of a professor whose research accidentally unearths history contradicting the current party line. Longtime journalist Ruan resigns from his post at the city newspaper after his investigations are repeatedly censored, vowing to start his own publication—its mission being to reveal the truth about the influence of government and commercial enterprises on public information. Assisting him are two colleagues recently returned to the metropolis: crusading reporter Johnny and computer wizard Yam.

This scenario could have provided Candace Chong all the ingredients for a juicy, pre-Maoist pulp whodunit to serve as the vehicle for her cautionary tale, reminiscent of Ibsen's Enemy of the People. Unfortunately, she encumbers her narrative with a subplot revolving around Johnny's past affair with Ruan's considerably younger wife, as well as his reunion with a working-class ex-girlfriend, who has become politicized in his absence.

Indeed, the entire text is hobbled by the stilted literary tone characteristic of Chinese-to-English paraphrasing better suited to novels than plays. Despite the efforts of translators Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, adapter David Henry Hwang, and the interpretive tweaks of director Helen Young and a deft cast featuring company regulars Christine Bunuan, Scott Shimizu and F. Karmann Bajuyo, Chong's warning cannot help but succumb to the visual distraction of Anthony Churchill's dazzling video projections—inadvertently demonstrating thereby just how easily crowd attention can be diverted from troubling admonitions.

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