Christopher Chen’s PASSAGE, now onstage at the Wilma Theater, is inspired by E. M. Forster’s brilliant novel A Passage to India. Though original in its language and contemporary relevance, it takes much of its plot and some of its dialog from the work. Though progressive for its time (1924), Forster’s novel now grates modern readers with its casual Orientalism. It remains an insightful examination of whether a colonizer can ever really be friends with the colonized (spoiler: no), but one can understand Chen’s desire to update the work.
He universalizes the story. Instead of a new visitor from England, we have a teacher from “Country Y” (Krista Apple) taking a new job in “Country X” (India in Forster’s novel). No longer an outdated work from the past, Chen’s PASSAGE intelligently explores issues race and immigration that will be instantly recognizable to modern American audiences.
In PASSAGE, director Blanka Zizka has found the ideal vehicle for the Wilma’s Hothouse acting company. She deploys a cast of multiple races and appearances across roles from both County X and Country Y, with Apple and Lindsay Smiling providing strong performances as the would-be friends from different backgrounds. The Wilma has produced works written specifically for and with its company which didn’t seem as well-suited for their various acting talents.
Unfortunately, Chen’s work adapts only the surface elements of Forster’s novel. Like with many climatic or theatrical adaptations of literature, taken from the page the writer’s in-depth insights into characters become ciphers whose motivations and personalities are treated only cursorily.
A superbly written layered-onion of increasingly surprisingly meta shifts, Chen’s Caught (seen in Philadelphia in an excellent recent InterAct production) demonstrated his ability to strip back his own drama to confound audience expectations and expose new truths. He attempts a similar device in PASSAGE, bringing an actor onstage for a direct-address denouement in which the playwright poses “profound” questions we ought to ask about the action we have just witnessed.
The way to get an audience to ask itself profound questions about a work is not by asking the audience profound questions about the work.
[The Wilma Theater] April 18-May 13, 2018; wilmatheater.org