China, the burgeoning frontier of unfettered capitalism these days, naturally gives rise to much scholarly and popular commentary as one market follows another. Much of this is predictably pervaded by a sense of inevitability, as if so-called globalization were nothing but the natural march of human reason toward a higher evolutionary plain, and not the hodgepodge of policies, rules, initiatives, laws, power grabs, scams, offices, organizations, strong-arm tactics, lies, capitulations, and conspiracies that it is.
Two news stories out of China — the explosion of a school where children also assembled firecrackers for a factory and the torching of an illegal Internet café by two teenagers — served as inspiration for We Are Not These Hands, a new play by Sheila Callaghan that questions just the sort of assumptions basic to the neoliberal program busily rending the world in the name of inexorable economic laws.
The play follows two desperately poor teenage girls, Moth (Juliet Tanner) and Belly (Cassie Beck), natives of a riverside city in an imaginary, rapidly developing country not unlike China, with their noses habitually pressed to the glass of an illegal Internet café. The "café" (handily realized by scenic designer Joel Frangquist) is a ramshackle affair of plywood walls and foldout tables with barely a functioning computer and not a drop of actual java. But to the girls it represents the great big beautiful world leaving them behind.
All the more alone since their school blew up (in an accident kindled by the makeshift firecracker factory in the lunchroom), their outsider status is underscored by their private language, childish pet terms and patterns of speech as imaginatively askew as their understanding of the world across the river (patrolled, we learn ominously, by men with machetes) or flashing across the working screens inside the Internet café.
Soon they spot a meal ticket and maybe more in a Western man they dub Leather (Paul Lancour) working at one of the terminals. When they don "the sex clothes" and approach him in a naive and humorously grotesque imitation of professional soliciting, the ensuing interaction is one of mutual incomprehension, but somehow a transaction of sorts takes place. The more amenable Moth returns with Leather to his room at the hostel, beginning what turns into an offbeat and lopsided but semiviable romance, with the promise of salvation attached. "He not a hinky scuzzer," she assures her friend later on. "He from across the river."
Leather, it turns out, is a "freelance scholar" writing a thesis on the region's development, determined to ride the cresting market to private glory on a particularly pathetic raft of economic gobbledygook. His imitation of academic jargon is another instance of mangled language, although with Leather it never leads anywhere, trailing off in ellipses, doubting parenthetical notes, and brilliant points "to be determined at a later time."
As Moth spends time with Leather at the hostel, Belly takes the coins she's stolen from his room to the Internet café, later describing to Moth, in terms vaguely mystical and full of wonder, her temporary escape to a paradisiacal beach encountered somewhere in cyberspace. A plan is hatched to get back there, across the river, with Leather as the key.
The play never quite registers the intensity it seems at times to be going for, but Callaghan's characters reflect a set of tensions, affinities, and contradictions as they negotiate love and survival that speak fluently of their mutual alienation from a half-illusory world of winners. Kent Nicholson's direction is lively and sure, capturing well the play's pent-up energies — a mostly satisfying if kooky mix of the satirical, madcap, and bizarre — while also paying due attention to its darker surfaces.