reviews – The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow

Chicago’s top papers give The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow (I designed the set) top marks.

At Collaboraction, ‘Jenny Chow’ a must-see
By Chris Jones

Tribune theater critic

Jennifer Shin must have been waiting for Jennifer Marcus her entire life. Or so this young Chicago actor’s blistering, careermaking performance atop a fabulous little Collaboraction show suggests.

Penned by Rolin Jones, one of those clever young writers known for language, “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow: An Instant Message With Excitable Music” sits on the page with a post-modern haze. To the casual reader it might seem hyperkinetic or pretentious. But in production — especially this production — this hip, smart and insightful play roars to life.

“Jenny Chow” deals with a tricky but underexplored topic — the arrival in adulthood of a baby, adopted from China and raised by parents in the United States.

Given that the main character, Jennifer Marcus, is an agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive malcontent who creates a robotic look-alike to go looking for her real mother in China, you might think this play probes an adoptive parent’s worst fears. Not so. Jones has compassion for everyone involved, and his 22-year-central character is not only a certifiable genius (and valued secret employee of the Department of Defense) but a wondrous fusion of cultures.

Shin launches into Jennifer like an actress possessed. Her work is not only every bit as frenetic, smart and endlessly compelling as the character requires, but also reveals a deeply empathetic character. And that’s why this show is so darn good. Shin’s emotional honesty and vulnerability leavens and settles the frenetic intellectual jumpiness of the writing. An uber-eloquent but elliptical Yale playwright has encountered the honest, play-it-straight-from-the-heart quality of the scrappy off-Loop. Both benefit from the other. And the resultant show is a must-see.

For anyone familiar with Cecilie D. Keenan’s earnest, careful directing style over the last decade, this production is a revelation. It moves like T1-line on steroids. Collaboraction has scored shows before — this one has original music by Mikhail “Misha” Fiksel, played live on electric guitar by Ian Forester. But whereas Collaboraction’s prior fusions have often felt inorganic, Fiksel’s music sets this script on fire.

The pumping soundtrack raises the stakes and forces the show to keep up. And it lets Shin find the right techno-beat for her hyperlinked Jenny, a woman who conducts an entire world-changing life on bedroom computer. Shin’s knockout performance is part dance and part race to the finish, but mostly a picture of a regular girl who needs only understanding. To play someone eight times as smart as anyone else in the room is a tough assignment. Shin does it either by actually being that smart, or creating one smart facsimile thereof.

But she isn’t the only reason to see this show. Scott Kennedy creates several distinctly quirky characters. Laura T. Fisher, as Jenny’s long-suffering mother, oozes painful longing. And as Jenny’s robotic alter ego, Jenny Chow, Mia Park superbly negotiates the tricky divide between the artificiality of a machine and the warm heart of its creator.

The missteps here — occasional overplaying, and some too-cute staging tricks with models — are minor. Jennifer Marcus — and her faux-Jenny Chow — aren’t just excitable, they’re exciting.

‘Intelligent’ life in Collaboraction’s universe
March 9, 2007
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic


Brilliant on all counts. That is the easy verdict in the case of “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” a play by Rolin Jones with the aptly descriptive subtitle “An Instant Message With Excitable Music.”
The show, now in its Midwest debut in a Collaboraction production that might well be the best work this company has done in all of its own intelligently designed 11 years, is supremely winning from start to finish. Not only does it fly on an imaginative, tragicomic script that has a real heart beating beneath its techno-driven wings (a script that was a 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist). But it comes with a dream cast under the impeccable direction of Cecilie Keenan, whose feel for the play’s mix of pathos and zaniness could not be more ideal.

Jones (now a writer on the hit Showtime series “Weeds”) has his finger directly on the electronically generated pulse of the twentysomething YouTube generation. Yet for all the youthful hipness (and geekiness) the play captures, it also is a deeply adult work — one rooted in a 21st century-style quest for identity and connection. Strip away all the cyber imagery, instant messaging and globalization and you have a play vaguely reminiscent of that late 1950s classic “A Taste of Honey.”
The central character in “Jenny Chow” is Jennifer Marcus, brought to life in a tour de force performance by Jennifer Shin, a young actress whose expressive genius and phenomenal physical and mental stamina eerily echo her character’s own off-the-charts IQ and manic energy. (Musician Whayne Braswell supplies the intriguing obligato to her chatter on bass guitar.)
Marcus began life as an abandoned Chinese girl — adopted in infancy by a California couple, and indulged in every privilege of upwardly mobile middle-class American family life. Yet now, at 22, she is still living at home, suffering from obsessive-compulsive disease and agoraphobia, and only venturing into the wider universe via her laptop.
Though fond of her dreamy, star-gazing dad (Ron Butts), Jennifer is at war with her hard-driving, fast-traveling mother, Adele (Laura T. Fisher, in a gorgeously limned portrayal that even involves some Chinese speech). And she is hellbent on finding her birth mother, who might be named Chow (the Chinese equivalent of Smith). Along the way, she “connects” via the Internet with everyone from a Mormon “pervie” missionary based in Shanghai, to a mad Russian-emigre scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, to a Defense Department nutcase (all played to uncannily hilarious effect by Scott Kennedy). She depends on true friendship with an underachieving pal, Todd (lovely work by Ian Forester). And she finds her spirited match in her cyber-age Frankenstein monster Jenny Chow (Jennifer Liu, so good she truly verges on the cyber).
A full explanation of “Jenny Chow” would require an entire silicon chip. Suffice it to say that it touches on all we know of this universe, or perhaps all we might never know, and that it is heartbreakingly real in its techno way.