Humor and insight found in cultural juxtaposition

By David C. Nichols
Special to The Times
February 4, 2006

Superpowers collide and commingle in Sleeping With Strangers, a remarkable collaborative duet at Highways that pools the considerable abilities of Chinese American performance artist Dan Kwong and traditional Chinese opera trouper Peng Jingquan.

The set consists of four wooden cubes and two sleeping mats on a platform, before which two bald figures mime vaguely questioning attitudes, then disappear. After a tart video prologue juxtaposes each artist in Los Angeles and Beijing, Kwong and Jingquan reenter, luggage and cultural attitudes firmly in hand, and a brisk bilingual vaudeville is upon us.

Before "Sleeping With Strangers" reaches its synoptic conclusion, both performers have found commonality without sacrificing viewpoint, which of course is the point of the whole enterprise.

Kwong, a wry, endearing multimedia mainstay for almost two decades, and Jingquan, whose elastic physicality and eloquent face announce a major find, make a wonderful seriocomic team. Batting paternal histories back and forth, enduring each other's nighttime quirks as bunkmates, folding Asian techniques into slapstick and symbolism, Kwong and Jingquan hold the house in their outstretched hands throughout.

Highlights abound. Jingquan's astonishing displays of authentic Chinese theater sword dances, acrobatics, playing all the roles in an opera — by themselves demand attendance. Kwong's arthritic attempts to mimic his wary comrade are hilarious, which also describes the set piece of both artists as puppet-bodied infants.

The running social commentary, sly subtitles and ironic urgency establish opposing positions without undue polemic, and no words do justice to Kwong and Jingquan in their climactic Karl Marx / Bill Gates challenge dance. The parallel father / son issues, a motif that could easily descend into schmaltz, resolve in a quietly galvanic summation of theme and subtext.

Technical elements are as resourceful as the performers, with the lighting by Jose Lopez particularly expressive. Pert, smart and refreshingly unpretentious, "Sleeping With Strangers" won't solve the American/Chinese conundrum overnight, but it makes a delightful diplomatic start.

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Copyright 2006, Roger W. Tang

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