Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: World Premiere play

Heritage, Comedy, Connection: “King of the Yees” at the Douglas

Stephenie Soohyun Park and Francis Jue in the world premiere production of “King of the Yees.” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


There is a moment toward the end of a favorite documentary where people who grew up in the then-segregated African-American neighborhood around Central and Slauson in L.A. talked about the loss of that neighborhood with regret. Entrance into the mainstream was great, they say, but they lost those close knit community ties. I could not help but think of this while watching Lauren Yee’s funny, insightful “King of the Yees” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Only this time, the community beginning to fray was, and is, San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its antique buildings and firmly held traditions.

Indeed, focal to the entire piece is the impressive, beautifully carved, red door of the Yee Family Association, of which Lauren’s father in the play is the president. That door, situated center stage, represents the Chinatown which the onstage Lauren sees as archaic and dissolving. Or does she.

In this world premiere, what begins as a standard “let me tell you about my father and my heritage” play soon takes a far more engrossing, positively Thornton Wilder-like turn. Hovered over by this very traditional, and apparently powerful door, one ends up touching on several elements of the modern Chinese-American (and larger Asian-American) experience with wit, a certain mysticism, and an underscore of hope.

Central to the piece are the performances of Stephanie Soohyun Park as Lauren and Francis Jue as her father Larry. The other cast members, Rammel Chan, Angela Lin and Daniel Smith provide a wide range of other characters, from actors to mystical persons, which pepper this engrossing journey.

Jue brings to Larry a balance of confidence and apparent innocence, tonally idealistic yet rooted in the practicalities of his supposedly insular world. This provides the perfect foil to Park’s crispness as her character’s assimilated Americanism bounces against the traditions of her childhood. The chemistry between the two creates a specific energy which powers the rest of the piece.

And that “rest” also proves engrossing, from discussions of the stereotypes demanded of Asian actors, through an examination of ritual and connection, to a brief, humorous window on the secret world beneath the touristy elements Chinatown presents to the world. The play proves, all at the same time, goofy, tender, pointed, illuminating and tremendously fun to watch.

Director Joshua Kahan Brody keeps the production’s pacing necessarily crisp, creating the quick transitions between thoughts and characters so needed in a play this potentially convoluted, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. Another star has to be Mike Tutaj, whose projections (along with set designer William Boles’ big red door) stir the mysticism, and (along with Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design) add to the comedy.

Still, all of these arrive in service of a fine play. Yee has the ability to make pointed, apparently autobiographical commentary in a way which enriches, entertains, and affirms. This play never talks down to those for whom the conceptual details are new, and manages – at least in this production – to find a common ground in the ongoing American discussion of the balance between keeping one’s own cultural heritage and becoming, if not part of a “melting pot,” at least one flavor in the tossed salad that is this country at its best.

What: “King of the Yees” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Archduke” at the Taper: Pseudo History, but Solid Social Commentary

L-R: Stephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke.”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

To begin with, I must issue a disclaimer. I teach history, so a play which is ostensibly about historical people engaged in historically documented events pushes me to look at the thing first as a historian and then as a theatrical critic.

Thus, there are two ways to approach Rajiv Joseph’s new play at the Mark Taper Forum. “Archduke” is ostensibly a historical play, in that its characters were elemental in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which opened the door to the devastation of World War I. However, taken as such, it must be pointed out that the facts have been treated with a considerable amount of creativity.

Therefore, “Archduke,” as a history-based document, would be highly problematic. Rather, one must look at the underlying messages of the play, as it examines the nature of obsession, and the gullibility of the disenfranchised young. As such it touches more on what would inspire the young to politically desperate action in any age. Given this understanding, it proves both very funny and touchingly powerful.

The story must, of course, center on Gavrilo Princep, the bright and highly nationalistic 19-year-old revolutionary and assassin. Only in this version he’s none of these. Rather, this Gavrilo is a dim peasant whose surprise tuberculosis diagnosis starts him on a journey to find some reason for having lived. Taken in by a Serbian colonel obsessed with freeing his people from Austro-Hungarian domination, Gavrilo and his two compatriots are more swept up by the colonel’s hospitality and elegant lifestyle than by politics.

Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that the center of this piece is Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the historic founder of The Black Hand, the group responsible for the assassination. Here, “Apis,” as he is called, appears as a madman with ferocious powers of persuasion. Can he take three “lungers” – that is, young men with a TB death sentence – and turn them into a revolutionary movement? Through bombast, coercion and a taste of the good life, it appears possible.

Stephen Stocking looks remarkably like the photos of the historic Gavrilo, and his ability to balance the character’s unschooled childlike qualities and fatalistic objectivity in the face of so much emotion makes the play work. As Dimitrijevic, Patrick Page provides the perfect counter to the underplayed future assassin, making the colonel pound and rage and pronounce with an intensity which perfectly overwhelms the innocence of his “converts.”

Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania give Gavrilo’s two fellow tubercular innocents a truly charming combination of simplicity and live-for-the-moment happiness, making it completely understandable that they would debate which was more important: assassination or a sandwich.

Todd Weeks provides the sanity in all the madness as the doctor left unable to assist the young men in their illness, while Joanne McGee, as the colonel’s cantankerous servant, balances sarcasm and pathos in keeping the proceedings from becoming too cartoonish.

Director Giovanna Sardelli truly understands the interplay of the underlying messages here, and balances the humor (which is genuinely funny throughout) and the darker elements in creating a true ensemble. In this she is aided by Tim Mackabee’s remarkable set: at many points comparatively stark, but lush at just the right moment. Denitsa Bliznakova has an eye for using costuming for both character development and historical context. In combination, the results are powerful and deeply engaging.

If anything, “Archduke” is about the ease with which the intelligent, passionate, but obsessed can convince those with little to lose to do things which may seem incomprehensible to the observer. Move this forward and it can be applied to all forms of outrageous and deadly acts, from a white supremacist in a church basement to an ISIS convert putting on a suicide vest. And that is the serious core of the play, all the delightful humor notwithstanding. In the end this matters far more than the play’s many liberties with history.

What: “Archduke” When: through June 4, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213)62802772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Marjorie Prime” at the Taper: A speculation on human-techological interaction

Lisa Emory and Lois Smith square off as daughter and mother in "Marjorie Prime" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lisa Emory and Lois Smith square off as daughter and mother in “Marjorie Prime” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Some of the best science fiction of the past 60 years or so has revolved around the concept of artificial intelligence, and the potential for robotics to mimic humanity. As we get closer to the reality of such things, we begin to examine the powers, limitations, and emotional effects a human-looking electronic being could have on the human race.

Which brings me to “Marjorie Prime,” a play by Jordan Harrison receiving its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. In some ways it says things echoed in other quarters about the limitations of programming, in other ways it offers a new examination of the plusses and pitfalls of emotional interaction with humanoid machinery.

The given in the world of “Marjorie Prime” is that one can create a robotic version, physically anyway, of someone who has passed away. That “prime” version of the person must then be programmed through the process of human reminiscence to talk and behave in a way that will mimic the original person. According to Harrison, the effects of such a thing will vary, depending on the person and the circumstance, from therapeutic to destructive.

Jeff Ward and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jeff Ward and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lois Smith is Marjorie, a woman with advancing dementia. We first meet a “prime” in the form of Walter Prime (Jeff Ward), a youthful-looking replacement for the husband she lost long before, whose programming by several people allows him to remind her of her own past, and – as in “The Notebook” – keep Marjorie more connected to her own history than would otherwise be possible.

Marjorie’s world is also populated by those who love her: her frustrated, sometimes bitter daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and her gentle, empathetic son-in-law Jon (Frank Wood). As time goes on, Marjorie and later Tess become “prime” versions. What was therapy for someone without a memory becomes hauntingly incomplete and increasingly painful for those whose memories are intact but limited to their own perspectives, making it difficult to program the replacements themselves. Will programming a prime stave off loss? Did the programmer “get” the interior monologue of the lost person well enough to create an imitation with any kind of veracity?

Lisa Emery and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lisa Emery and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Smith makes the distinction between Marjorie and her “prime” version a symphony of subtleties. Her spot-on dementia persona drifts into a static, formula personality in ways which underscore the point of the play. Emery’s Tess moves from frustration with impending loss to frustration with the limits of imitation, to the blandness of imitation itself. Wood’s Jon, played as a man whose heart is big and often worn on his sleeve, curdles as his world is increasingly artificial.

And – in one stark statement of a scene – the three primes try conversing with each other as if they were real. The conclusions are all in there.

Director Les Waters moves the setting and tone of the piece into increasing isolation, just as the play does. Sometimes this makes the staging rather static – unfortunate in a work which is all underplayed to some extent, to maximize the few moments of great emotion. Mimi Lien’s minimal set, which moves at one point to make its own interesting statement, keeps the focus on the personalities (or, in some cases, the lack of personality) which make this play interesting to watch, but emphasizes their bleakness and increasingly spare environment.

“Marjorie Prime” moves slowly, and is performed without intermission. As a play it is a “ponderable,” and that balance between what has been said before and what is new may inspire many to dismiss it as almost cliché in its view of the potential advances of AI. To avoid that, one must focus on the human characters. One wishes there was a bit more chance to do so.

What: “Marjorie Prime” When: Through October 19, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave. at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Fashion is Life: “Everything You Touch” at The Theatre@Boston Court

Tyler Pierce and Esme Pierce evoke the world of high fashion in "Everything You Touch" at Boston Court

Tyler Pierce and Esme Maher evoke the world of high fashion in “Everything You Touch” at Boston Court

Some of the best things I’ve seen at the Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena have been subtle psychological introspections – puzzles only solved as you delve into the storyteller’s world. This is often greatly enhanced by the daring with which Boston Court’s directors and designers approach the telling of the tale: the understated symbolism, and little hints of the power behind what the words are saying, etc.

Case in point would be “Everything You Touch” by Sheila Callaghan, a coproduction with the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater which was nurtured into being by the Boston Court, and is receiving its world premiere run there. And who better to direct something steeped in the above-mentioned subtleties than co-Artistic Director Jessica Kubzansky. The results have proved so fascinating the run of the play has been extended until at least May 18.

“Everything You Touch” is grounded in the world of fashion. It centers on parallel plots. One is set in the 70s, following a self absorbed fashion designer’s gradual shift from outlandish and groundbreaking to popular and trendy – and the women who inspired the two versions of himself. The other, seated in the now, seems a polar opposite: a dumpy and disheveled young computer whiz whose wrestles with the demons of her own self-loathing escalate as she must travel from New York to Little Rock and her dying, judgmental mother.

Arthur Keng and Kirsten Vangsness as counterpoint to the fashionable world in "Everything You Touch"

Arthur Keng and Kirsten Vangsness as counterpoint to the fashionable world in “Everything You Touch”

At least, that’s where it all begins. From there the two stories weave in and around each other, creating some questions, answering others, blurring lines in time and space.

To add to the surreal, the set dressing and props consist rather heavily of live fashion models. They stride in, angle themselves, and become computer screens, telephones, gum dispensers, and all matter of props. What isn’t made of humans – a chair is the most startling example – is made of mannequin parts. In short, fashion consumes the set just as it powers the plot.

If this sounds convoluted, it’s not. Both Kubzansky’s direction and a spirited, richly expressive cast easily pull the audience into the puzzle.

Tyler Pierce is Victor, a womanizing fashion designer with a struggling boutique and a reputation for both callousness and an edgy, out-there creativity. Kate Maher gives her own sharpness to the former model who has become Victor’s artistic muse and occasional sexual partner. Amy French is the comparatively cornfed prize winner whose visit and discourse on comfiness strikes a surprising bell with Victor, initiating a sea change in all his relationships.

Kirsten Vangsness is Jess, the frumpy computer geek used to one-night stands and a life behind a computer screen. Her somewhat sarcastic sense of self leads her to meaningless relationships, all the while ignoring her work partner, Lewis (Arthur Keng), whose devotion she cannot see. Now she hears her mother is dying, and scoops up a guy – essentially an elongated pick-up – to go with her on the journey. Or does she?

The achingly white set by Francois-Pierre Couture, ingeniously crafted to allow for quick changes and a focus on the colorful clothing, Jenny Foldenauer’s startling, varied and very telling costumes, Adam Flemming’s evocative projections, John Zalewski’s original music, and those weird and wonderful props by John Burton all combine to guide the audience through the characters’ interior monologues and human conflicts. In the end, what appears just to be a conversation on self-image has much more to say about the human spirit and the nature of both success and art.

“Everything You Touch” delivers that remarkable combination of satisfaction and conversation starter that makes for one kind of excellent theater. And since shows that make you think are The Theatre at Boston Court’s bread and butter, it is no surprise that the show is being held over. The special efforts it took to make this world premiere happen certainly prove to be worth it.

What: “Everything You Touch” When: Through May 18, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $29 senior/student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

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