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      The Soup Comes Last
    Stock characters

    "The Soup Comes Last" is best when it focuses less on the writer-choreographer's own culture shock and more on how her cast and crew reacted when she brought "West Side Story" to China.


    "The Soup Comes Last" is the story of a cultural translation gone awry. In the spirit of Sofia Coppola's movie "Lost in Translation," "The Soup," enjoying a three-week run at the intimate "C" space of 59e59, falls far from the deep quirkiness and contemplation of Coppola's work. Still, writer-actor Rachel Lampert has crafted a sincere piece, achieving range in her one-woman performance, touching moments, and a smattering of laughs.

    Company: Kitchen Theatre Co..
    Written and performed by: Rachel Lampert.
    Directed by: Karen Azenberg.

    Related links: Official site
    59E59 Theaters
    59 East 59th St.
    Oct. 4-24, 2004

    In this true story, Lampert narrates and plays herself — a down-to-earth Jewish dance instructor from upstate New York, hired for six weeks as the resident choreographer of China's first-ever production of "West Side Story." The production takes place in a pallid school auditorium 50 km from the center of Beijing in the late 1990s. It is on this isolated farmscape that Lampert encounters swampy bathrooms, fuzzy translations, sexual mores which interfere with the production at hand, and nightly banquets, which occasionally culminate with eyeball soup.

    Lampert brings to life a host of other characters. The most vivid and annoying is her collaborator, a preeny South African Jew from Los Angeles named Joann. Joann is the quintessence of oblique tourist. Finding the duo's first English translator lacking, she exaggeratedly mimes everything in a sign language that ridiculously presumes the recipient's knowledge of Western cultural symbols, vernacular, and even English: the mime-speak for "Professor Ding" is the ringing of an imaginary bell. She sweet talks; she cajoles; she bellows; she storms her way through countless cultural barriers, an iron cleaver wrapped in one of the silk nighties she's brought along.

      The Soup Comes Last
    Lampert's material is limited: she chooses to inhabit only the characters with whom she had spoken communication — the insufficient translator, her exceptional replacement (Lampert does an above-average rendition of a Chinese person speaking fluent English, but a touch of upstate New York occasionally flows through), and tender moments spent with a young dancer who has ambition, talent, and zero English. The play pays homage to English colloquialism: in one thrilling passage, the replacement translator wonders aloud that "air," a theatrical term Joann uses to indicate long pauses between lines, means the same as Lampert's more down-home expression, "you can drive a truck through it." A nice touch: mock Chinese proverbs appear in fortune-cookie-like super-titles above the stage, such as "Only if you climb the mountain can you view the high plain."

    But too often do the laughs rely on cultural assumptions: on its face, for example, the idea of a cold shower in a three-inch pool of stale water registers bare amusement — after all, Lampert willingly submitted herself to a Third World country.

    The play is at its best when Lampert reaches for themes that transcend personal comfort: cursory references to political history, as when Lampert gives Joann a hard time for pushing the students on sexual liberation: "They just got over the Cultural Revolution, and you're trying to launch them into the Sexual Revolution?"

    The play ends on a note of surprise: Lampert takes a seat and shows the audience a treat which I won't give away. But it is a touching finale to a sweet play that still may not linger for much longer than the warmth of a good, homecooked soup.

    OCTOBER 24, 2004

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