It's a family affair

Cheng-Meng explores the meaning of family, with characters that feel like you and me

Cheng Meng, play Photo courtesy of A Theatre Unit

A Theatre Unit couldn't have picked a better venue for its latest play, Cheng-Meng. Because of its presence, the multidisciplinary art space Cho Why is currently home to a Thai-Chinese family, as normal and dysfunctional as any.

The building, which has been converted into one of the most happening art spaces in Bangkok, was once a house itself and stands on the little street of Nana in Chinatown perfumed with Chinese medicine. In the past couple of years, hip galleries and bars have breathed a new kind of spirit into the area. And Cheng-Meng, with characters that feel as real as you and me, facing problems so painfully familiar to yours and mine, gives us an opportunity to imagine the homeliness that might have once existed inside this space.

The play is part of A Theatre Unit's Revival Series, which restages original plays by Thai artists from the previous decade. Cheng-Meng was adapted from Naked Masks' play of the same name (originally titled From This Day On in English) by playwright-director Ninart Boonpothong.

Not so unlike Cho Why and the street on which it stands, Cheng-Meng is a portrait of the complex relationship between the past and the present. In Cheng-Meng, we see the conflict between collectivism and individualism among the characters. But the play, adapted by Ninart and the show's director, A-tis T. Asanachinda, doesn't take the predictable route of using the older characters to symbolise traditional values and the younger characters the modern ones. Each character is breaking one rule or another -- their personal choices in conflict with the values they think they're expected to uphold.

Vit (Thamrong Dejthammathorn) is dating a woman 20 years his senior. He is keeping the relationship from his widowed mother Madame Lee (Natthaya Nakavech), who has a secret no less inappropriate than her son's. A close family friend, Pae (Khanchai Kleebkaraket), knows what Vit and Madame Lee are hiding from each other but also struggles with a familial shame all his own. Chun (Jirayu Patcharasakmongkol) is an ambitious architect and the only heir to his father's business empire. The person who brought them all together and made this family possible is Chun's father, who disappeared six months earlier. They are forced to face the fact of his absence and the secrets they have held from each other on Qingming ("Cheng-Meng" is the Thai pronunciation) Festival, or Chinese Ancestors' Day.

With so many difficult knots to untie, the play wraps up rather cosily, so much so that the crisis feels like an everyday occurrence. Every day, this family untangles troubles big and small. Every day, they struggle to be a family. Cheng-Meng is just another day to deal with and support one another and then move on from.

The play still feels like a mini-celebration, though -- of a family. And Cheng-Meng celebrates both the family we've chosen and the one we haven't.

The ensemble acting is wonderful. The chemistry among the cast is easy and endearing, like a true family. Khanchai is a young actor to watch. And Natthaya is so naturally compelling, as always. If only there were more complex roles for actors like them to play.


Cheng-Meng continues until Sunday at Cho Why, at 8pm (with 4pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday). Tickets are 450 baht at the door (400 baht for advance reservations). For more information and reservations, send a Line message to @atheatreunit or visit http://facebook.com/atheatreunit.

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