New Youth was odd. The adjective appears in my notes more than once. A translation of a modern Chinese drama, showing outside of that country for the first time, it follows the pursuit of happiness through multiple ages and worlds, grappling with political ideal and the role of the youth. Director Dominic Kimberlin’s production successfully brings this ambitious piece to the modest Barron, presenting it with stylish aesthetic and unyielding enthusiasm, but unpolished translation and performances somewhat dampened the experience.
Visually, the production was impressive. Costume was elaborate and interesting across the board, ranging from Chinese-style robes to panda onesies. The set was interestingly laid out, using the Barron’s platforms on either side of the stage, and boxes were used to create a middle level. Props were used extensively, as well. At times, it seemed like half of what the Barron owned was on the stage, but that just made things more dynamic and visually stimulating.
Use of tech was astounding, too. Projection was used to show interesting images, lights established several scenes and were generally interesting, and sound was used to add dramatic flair to other parts. My favorite bit was a video used near the end that was elaborately edited and timed well with the pace of the performance. My only complaint would be about scene transitions. Though they were handled as swiftly as could be expected for the amount of stuff being moved on and off, it was loud, and light, because the projector stayed on during the transition. It looked sloppy and unprofessional, and that frustrated, because the situation could so easily have been ameliorated by turning off the projector during blackouts. Still, producer Clarence Leong and technician Lavin Ge Tian should be recognized for the tremendous effort they clearly underwent.
But the power of the aesthetic extends beyond the production elements. I really liked the blocking. Kimberlin injected physical dynamic into every scene, particularly those with crowds. He kept the stage alternately busy without being boring, and still without being static.
But in terms of vocal performances, there were a number of concerns. Diction was poor across the board, which made keeping up with the involved plot and foreign names frustratingly difficult. Speed was also an issue. I found June Lee’s performance particularly engaging, but she spoke very quickly, which made her difficult to understand. But my greatest issue with the performance has to do with volume. Tension is important to a drama, it holds it together. Unfortunately, New Youth’s tension was broken whenever a character began to shout. There was never any recognizable build up to it, so it just startled, shattering immersion and dropping the energy of the scene.
Then there’s the script. New Youth is ambitious and grand in it’s philosophy and design. Unfortunately, I have doubts about the translation, which showed the telltale sign of sloppy adaptation. For one, it had issues with synonyms. The words “classmate” and “internet game”, the latter being a term no one uses in conversation, are used so often that it quickly begins to grate. More seriously, its pace is erratic. The main character is, on several occasions, convinced to change his position by a single line of dialogue.
New Youth has its issues. It’s clearly not designed for this country, or this stage. And yet, I enjoyed it. I saw something one does not often have the chance to see: a production as exotic as it is mad, as ambitious as it is eccentric.