Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Timely “Yellow Face”: Moral Dilemma Made Funny, but Still True
In the play, now revived with considerable skill at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, Hwang uses humor and a certain amount of poetic license, to tell the story of the frustrations Asian performers have wrestled with over the comparatively regular casting of non-Asians in Asian parts.
From the era of Charlie Chan, played by white actors from Warner Oland to Peter Ustinov, to the upheaval in Actors Equity in the 90s over the use of a white British actor as the central character – a Vietnamese – in “Miss Saigon,” Hwang points to the inequity of giving Asian roles to white performers. This even as he underscores how easy it is to convince those who want to be convinced that the false Asian is, indeed, real.
The production, itself a revival of a coproduction with Firescape Theatre in San Francisco, is even more bare-bones than the original, with all the actors seated in a row on the stage, most then becoming several different people over the course of the play. Essentially, the show posits what would happen if a playwright of Hwang’s prominence misled the public, for a lot of internal reasons, into thinking a purely white actor is of Asian descent, and then that actor runs with the idea far enough to begin becoming an Asian entertainment icon.
This tale is then juxtaposed against Hwang’s very real wrestling with his banker father’s misconceptions about western business practices – ones which lead to the father’s downfall as his Far East National Bank becomes embroiled in investigations into possible Chinese influence-peddling.
Still, the power in this play comes from its humor as well as its poke at social responsibility, and the quality of the performers who make the whole thing come to life. Jeffrey Sim is Hwang himself, both the narrator and protagonist of the piece. Sim’s tight comic timing, and his casual humanity keeps the play both serious and very funny, sometimes at the same moment. Roman Moretti, as the actor who discovers his calling in being someone he is not, is just handsome enough, with just vague enough ethnic markers to make his role work – a role he handles in a straightforward, even earnest way which keeps it from being innately insulting.
Alfonso Faustino creates Hwang’s banker father, and a host of other entertainment and cultural figures, Jennifer Vo Le creates all of the play’s Asian women, from Hwang’s mother to his false creation’s girlfriend. Lisagaye Tomlinson handles a startlingly varied collection of other characters, making each impressively individual, while Dennis Nollette does the same as a broad spectrum of producers and politicos, some of them quite recognizable. John Pendergast, in the smaller but profoundly essential role of an actual, though elaborately unnamed New York Times reporter, carries his character’s nonjudgementalism with a somewhat sinister air.
All of these actors and characters intertwine in an elaborate choreography at the hands of director Robert Zimmerman. The minimalist staging works splendidly, and the finesse with which the cast handles the fast-paced, sometimes overlapping storytelling keeps the audience engaged, even occasionally on the edge of their collective seats, throughout.
“Yellow Face” remains profound, even as it also remains very humorous. It’s theme underscores one of the last seemingly acceptable cultural appropriations (remember the controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s voicing of a character in The Ghost in the Shell series), and – albeit with humor – claims identity as an important aspect of the 21st century entertainment sphere.
What: “Yellow Face” When: through September 26, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Where: Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd. in Beverly Hills How Much: $20 – $30. Info: http://www.plays411.com/yellowface