Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: East West Players

As We Babble On: Minority Life and Art in the Era of the Internet

As We Babble On 1

As We Babble On 1: (L-R) Sachin Bhatt, Will Choi, Jiavani Linayao, Jaime Schwarz, and Bobby Foley star in East West Players’ production of Nathan Ramos’ As We Babble On [Photo: Michael Lamont]

[Note: Though this review ran on the SCNG newspaper websites before closing, it was not posted here until after the show had ended]

It is a large order: give an empathetic sense of what life is like for artistic persons of color trying to get ahead. Inject humor, avoid or explode stereotype, and evince hope using forms interconnected with the comparatively youthful generation beginning to feel empowered to make or coordinate change. The good news: by and large Nathan Ramos’ “As We Babble On,” receiving its world premiere at East West Players, in association with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, does quite a lot of what was ordered.

Essentially, we watch the birth and content of the graphic novel Benji, a Korean-American cartoonist and gay man, begins to construct when passed over for a promotion at a huge NYC comics enterprise. Benji, like virtually all of the people in the play, is actually bi-racial – a fact which further complicates the ways the world sees him and them, and how they all define themselves. Into all these intertwining conflicts, the story develops.

As he attempts to branch out and do his own work, Benji bumps into a former lover, wrestles with his relationship with the young African-American video blogger who is his roommate, and must deal with his automatic reaction to his budding journalist sister potentially, and stereotypically, connecting with a wealthy young man who can open doors. What he does with all of this, defined in terms of who is or should be a super hero – and what his own role in such a tale would be – proves consistently entertaining, rather heated, and fairly illuminating.

Will Choi is Benji. In trying to make his character the unassertive person he is, Choi resorts to a kind of full-body whining which proves mostly annoying, but when he pulls out of that space and into the creative and intellectual processing part of his character, he is as witty as his material, and as effective.  As his wildly assertive roommate, Jiavani Linayao proves a highly entertaining bundle of energy, radiating her character’s resilience, and assurance of her own power to persuade, to tilttilate, and to marshal her online forces even as many of them see her as a fetishist’s dream.

Sachin Bhatt in every element of his carriage as Benji’s former boyfriend, embodies the paradox of the person whose professional success has come at the cost of being the token, or the nervous-making “other,” in almost all of his social settings. On the other hand, Jaime Schwartz, as Benji’s more caucasian-appearing sister, deals with issues of youth and femininity as barriers in an online journalistic world where her roll has been assigned to fluff pieces rather than the in-depth hard journalism she knows she is capable of. Enter Bobby Foley, shining with an upper class confidence as a tycoon’s son famed for excess, who may or may not be intent on either using Benji’s sister or caring for and assisting her.

Some of the best of this production comes from Tasshi Nakagawa’s layered set, which provides spaces for the many online commentaries from the roommate’s fans or Benji’s mom, thus providing the many other characters which semi-populate the storyline and the stage. Director Alison M. De La Cruz doesn’t shy away from the more intense, more sexual, or even on occasion more crass elements of the play, giving it a starkness at important moments which can be either humorous or disturbing. Special shout-out to Sheiva Khalily, whose projections not only include the online commentaries of the unseen characters, but the cartoon-hero versions of the play’s central figures as Benji increasingly sees and draws them, and the comic book “titles” for specific moments in Benji’s journey.

The play apparently began as a two-act piece and has been edited into a single, long act with no intermission. This is effective in some ways, in that the story continues to build toward Benji’s own self revelations, and those of his friends, in a single arc. It is made into a long sit, however, as you can tell by the warning explanations to everyone prior to curtain that there will be no bathroom break.

“As We Babble On” is not a great play, but it offers up insights worth taking note of, and offers a nod to the way of the arts in a world lived increasingly online. It has entertaining characters, but – if this matters to you – also contains a certain amount of fairly overt sexuality of varying types. This is not a play for kids. Go catch it quick if you are interested, though, as it enters its final weekend.

What: “As We Babble On”  When: through June 24, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Also St. in Los Angeles. How Much: $40 – $50  Info: (213) 625-7000 or http://www.eastwestplayers.org

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Allegiance: Important Statement, Mediocre Musical

George Takei, as the aged Sammy in the original Broadway production of “Allegiance” [photo: Matthew Murphy]

There are two ways to look at the East West Players/Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC)’s new production of the musical “Allegiance,” just opened at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo. Both have a validity, which must be acknowledged, but the results of those two ways of examination may prove very different.

The first is the affirmation it gives to people of Japanese descent, as it tells the tale of that black mark on 20th century American history, the Japanese Internment. The story is an important one, and – as the program states – those Issei and Nissei who lived it are disappearing with time. Having a way to keep their story alive, and to let those culturally linked to it see themselves on stage, is important indeed. To some extent, “Allegiance” does that.

The other way to look at “Allegiance” is simply as a work of theater, evaluating it on the more universal aspects one normally ascribes to a Broadway musical. There the results are far more mixed. With all its good intentions, passion and relevence, “Allegiance” proves somewhat antiquated in style, formulaic in construction, and lacking the depth one would hope to find in a piece about something so profound.

The story follows a single family through the devastating changes to Japanese American life caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Executive Order 9066, forcing all Japanese on the US mainland out of coastal areas, with the loss of homes and businesses, and into prison camps. In the process, it works to present the rifts within and around that Japanese community as they cope with the overt racism of this event: of generation, of political thought, and of action.

This is a tall order for any musical. The essential book, by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, although choppy at times, manages to cover this episodic story with breadth if not depth. However, Kuo’s musical numbers keep the pacing of the piece from working properly. Every single song is formulated the same way: start small and introspective, then build and build to a highly dramatic and affirmative ending, even if it really isn’t appropriate to end that way.

With the exception of the opening number – which promises all the elements which should be there throughout – the songs, which multiply during sequences in the camp, disrupt any attempt to build tension and dramatic structure. Instead, you have dialogue, dramatic musical affirmation, then a bit more dialogue, then another dramatic musical affirmation, pretty much in the same tone throughout. It makes what should be a consistently heartrending story become formulaic, and doesn’t really allow for enough development of characters we should want to care about.

Still, the ensemble works hard to make things flow, and to create characters which resonate with the audience. Ethan Le Phong and Elena Wang have the most fully rounded portraits to deal with, as the young adult brother and sister – Sammy and Kei Kimura – whose tale is central to the piece. Le Phong makes Sammy vibrate with an energy half anger and half determination to live into his identity as an American. Wang, as a woman trying to preserve the bond between generations, speaks to a growing self-identity forged through difficult times.

Scott Watanabe gives their determinedly Japanese father, legitimately angry at the loss of the fruits of a lifetime of labor, a stalwart, noble quality which underscores the reasonableness of the anger. George Takai makes the elderly grandfather the antithesis of this – a man who has long learned to adapt to whatever comes, finding a way to create his own happiness in the midst of disarray and discrimination.

Also worthy of note are Natalie Holt MacDonald as the white American army nurse assigned to the camp, whose heart goes out to the people she can only partially help and to Sammy in particular, and Greg Watanabe, as the recognized advocate for Japanese in America whose approach to government has been blamed by some as acquiescence.

Director Snehal Desai has worked to take this choppy thing and make it into a cohesive whole. At times this works brilliantly, as it does in the scene surrounding the family’s arrival at the Heart Mountain camp in northwest Wyoming. In others, even the constant use of Se Hyun Ho and Adam Flemming’s projection-rich sets cannot keep this show on emotional target.

In sum, the Japanese Internment was a blight on American democracy, and putting it on stage for all to see is important. As a contemporary anthropologist said at the time, the fact that these same internees returned to their homes and worked to become part of the American mainstream is remarkable, given their treatment. To celebrate their story and struggle in music and on stage, and to let Japanese Americans experience their own heritage is enriching within that community as well. “Allegiance” does all that. One just wishes it was as good as its intentions.

What: “Allegiance” When: through April 1, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Where: JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 680-3700 or http://www.AllegianceMusical.com

Clash of Culture: “Free Outgoing” at East West Players

Anna Khaja as the desperate mother so central to "Free Outgoing" and its examination of media and cultural norms in modern India

Anna Khaja as the desperate mother so central to “Free Outgoing” and its examination of media and cultural norms in modern India

What happens when traditional values and rigid social norms come face to face with teenaged curiosity and social media? That is the essential question at the root of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s “Free Outgoing,” now onstage East West Players as part of their 51st anniversary celebration. Set in the state of Chennai, India, a teenaged girl, a promising student and the apple of her widowed mother’s eye, faces explosive reaction when a video of her sexual encounter with a boy at her school goes viral. With a mother on an impossible quest for damage control, a brother furious at the consequences for his own future, and a community rushing to judgement, the implications of gender bias and rigid societal norms come front and center.

Such a play – which is loosely based on an actual incident – could easily become preachy or pedantic, but Chandrasekhar has chosen a fascinating window on the situation. As a former journalist, she comes from the perspective of how someone like this loving mother reached the eventual stage of abject desperation which became public knowledge. What could have brought someone to that place? By peeling back layer after layer of maternal reaction, one reaches the true meat of the tale. The girl is focal to the story, and yet she is never seen. Instead it is the collateral damage we watch, as the mother, brother, and the mother’s occasionally supportive male colleague end up in an increasingly insular, and increasingly desperate space.

Anna Khaja is Malini, the proud mother, quick to show off the many academic awards her girl has won. As she processes the news of her daughter’s downfall, and the difference in severity of public reaction to the girl’s behavior over the boy involved, she goes through all of the stages of grief, from anger and denial through acceptance and even responsibility. It’s a strong and intelligent performance, often underplayed to significant effect.

As her fellow prisoner in this judgmental situation, Kapil Talwalkar gives the girl’s brother Sharan at once the quick temper of youth and a personal desperation, then gradually mellows this into a balance of previously unavailable connection to his mother and fierce protectiveness of his victimized sister. The warmth which begins to envelop these two central characters – mother and son – is also an important note of progress and understanding so different from the crowds which form outside their door.

Dileep Rao brings a moment of clarity as the father of the boy the girl was with, radiating a subtle but constant sense of gender privilege. Anil Kumar creates, in the awkward but sympathetic colleague, both a sense of earnest concern and a little edge of creepiness which powers later segments of the play. In a sterling bit of the actor’s art, Kavi Ladnier plays three extremely distinct characters who define the stages of Malini’s family’s degradation, so different from each other that it seems startling that a single actor could have created them all. In this she is aided by Rachel Myers’ satisfyingly apt costumes.

Still, this is Khaja’s play. Under the carefully paced direction of EWP’s artistic director Snehal Desai, this mother’s internal wrestle with culture, ethics, love and pain speaks volumes about powerlessness in the face of disaster. And, of course, the disaster itself speaks to the powerlessness of women in general, in a society where a woman’s reputation is everything, and is still couched in terms which allow little in the way of sexual expression or self-determination.

“Free Outgoing” offers, in a way, a reversal on the theme of “Death of a Salesman,” where a grown man’s actions undo his family and his life. Here a grown woman is undone by the guileless behavior of two people barely out of childhood, and watches all of life fall away due to externalities over which she has absolutely no control. As such it is a fascinating and empathetic character study, and a condemnation of any society which would impose such a severe and destructive norm, particularly in such an uneven circumstance.

What: “Free Outgoing” When: Through March 12, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $35 – $50, with student, senior and group discounts available Info: (213) 625-7000 or http://www.eastwestplayers.org

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