Mandarin Orange, directed by Jill Vice, is an earnest, heartwarming performance and a poignant international comedy about change, identity, and the deep rooted meaning of home based on Robards rural Texas upbringing. The strange and surprising ways that moving to Shanghai, China takes culture shock to a new level is the genesis of Kate Robards’ autobiographical solo show which premieres at Caos on F Street as a part of Capital Fringe 2014.
Home is where your story begins, and for Kate Robards that story begins in Orange, Texas.
With a population just under 19,000 as the easternmost city in Texas, Robards’ hometown of Orange offers small town charm, world-class culture, and is the county seat of Orange County. Her family goes back six generations in Orange, TX and she was raised to abide in three rules:
1. Go to church.
2. Help your neighbor and friends.
3. Shop local.
Robards brings a variety of characters to life in Mandarin Orange including her free-thinking and influential Southern mother, and details nonfictional accounts and personal struggles of her journey living in China’s largest city, the fastest growing city in the world.
The language barrier, bright lights, and evolving skills of cultural etiquette don’t stop Robards making fun of herself and any situation along the way. Robards skilled crafting of clever moments of unexpected humor into her monologue is commendable.
Soon after arrival in Shanghai, Robards quickly finds herself a part of the “Shanghai Dolls” – a world-traveled American group of expat women who live in Shanghai. They swap ‘Shanghai stories’ and share advice. But old habits die hard and they continue to eat at the same Western chain restaurants.
There are several funny exchanges with the personalities and Robards’ characterizations of these individuals that reveal context and subtext to the very relatable shock of moving to a city and culture so different from what one has known their whole life. The humor from these strange but true insights is engaging and Mandarin Orange would benefit from additional unique Shanghai vignettes.
All good stories connect with emotion. While Mandarin Orange is filled with stories aplenty, too few of the offerings lacked the emotional integrity of lasting impact. Situations are described and made fun, but more direct personal moments – especially with Kate and the relationship that took her to Shanghai – would bring intimacy and endure. As it stands, I have a slightly greater sense of whom Kate’s mother is than I do Kate.
There is a compelling improvised flavor to strands within the monologue that enhances the storytelling; still the continuous back and forth moments from Orange, Texas back to Shanghai often interrupts the natural momentum of the free flow. Robards does a good job establishing tone, but often the impression of the Orange, Texas sequences felt repetitive.
Mandarin Orange is likeable and not a bad time spent, but the production is a work in progress. The dedication and effort are easily apparent, and James Slater’s robust sound design is an appreciated and nice polish to the overall presentation. Reworking twenty minutes by cutting entirely or fine-tuning and reconstructing with new material, might focus the continuity and weaving of the theme through-lines and finesse what felt like an abrupt ending.
There are more interesting stories within Kate Robards I am sure, and I hope that she is encouraged to dig deeper and connect those moments. I sincerely would love to hear them.
Stories can take root in our hearts – even when one is thousands of miles away in Shanghai. But for Mandarin Orange’s Kate Robards, home is where the heart is.
Running Time: 50 minutes.
Mandarin Orange plays through July 26 at Caos on F- 923 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to her Capital Fringe Page.
Performances: Sun 7/20 9:30 PM, Tue 7/22 8:00 PM, Thu 7/24 6:00 PM, and Sat 7/26 10:00 PM.
Kate Robard’s website.