Reviews: The Chinese Lady, A Touch of the Poet, The Life
The Chinese Lady (c) Joan Marcus
The Chinese Lady
The Public Theater and Ma-Yi Theater Company
Neil Armstrong knew he was the first person on the moon. It was indisputable. But was, as playwright Lloyd Suh contends in the highly enjoyable play “The Chinese Lady,” Afong Moy the first Chinese woman ever to set foot in America? I am not one to dispute the validity of Suh’s research, but really, the first Chinese woman ever? The play reminds me of Suzan-Lori Park’s “Venus” about how Sarah Baartman was displayed in London around the same time as the African Hottentot. In “The Chinese Lady,” the year is 1834 and Afong Moy is 16 years old, having been, well, rented (!) by her father to Nathaniel and Frederick Carnes, traders who specialize in Asian commodities, to show her off to New York as a, well, curiosity. And curious New York was. As performed by the excellent Shannon Tyo in a series of presentations, Afong Moy (always the full name, it seems) is more than happy to show off her wardrobe, her customs, her bound feet, her use of chopsticks and how she drinks tea. As a teenager, Afong Moy seems to adore the attention as well as learning about this new country. Helping Afong Moy in her presentation (and to hawk souvenirs for the Carnes brothers) is translator and stage manager Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), who is labeled “irrelevant” to her story, but he does bring in and take away props when needed. For six scenes, we get to see a series of presentations, and one of the points I gather Suh wants to make clear is that while America has always found Asian women exotic, men in general are deemed again irrelevant. The years fly by from scene to scene, and Tyo does a good job distinguishing the many ages of Afong Moy with just the slightest change in inflection and her smile, which seems painted on, but that paint slowly chips away. Tyo has good chemistry with Isaac (who is on the TV show “Billions”), and they have a sibling relationship that is ultimately strained over time, giving us much-needed drama that the play, while informative and enjoyable, sorely lacks. How (and when) the play ends is a spoiler I won’t divulge, but let’s just say, the historical significance and ultimate treatment of Afong Moy is made evident to the audience, who is currently in a time of a rise in violence and hatred of Asian people, especially because of, but not exclusive to, a previous President’s administration. Parallels won’t be that difficult to discern.
A Touch of the Poet (c) Carol Rosegg
A Touch of the Poet
The Irish Repertory Theatre
If there’s an off-Broadway theater that is having a killer season, post-pandemic, it has to be The Irish Rep. After a shaky opener, “Autumn Royal,” they followed with a wonderful musical revival of “The Streets of New York” and now they are presenting a powerful and stirring revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of a Poet.” First, it’s nice to see an O’Neill play that doesn’t get many revivals. Although there was a tepid Broadway production in 2003 with Gabriel Byrne in the title role, I have never seen this play and I have to say, besides the pop psychology ideas which were new in 1942 but feels a bit on-the-nose in today’s eyes, the show is a crackling good time. It takes place in 1828 in a tavern boarding house outside of Boston on the anniversary of Major Con Melody (a powerful Robert Cuccioli) winning a medal for bravery at the Battle of Talavera in Spain. That memory keeps Con on his high horse in America, even though no one is ever impressed by his stories and he is riddled with debt. The tavern is run by his much-put-upon wife, Nora (a sympathetic Kate Forbes), whom Con, whenever he gets drunk (often), blames for trapping him into marriage and thus ruining his military career, and Sara (Belle Aykroyd), his strong-willed daughter who may see a way out with a sick boy she is nursing in the boarding house who turns out to be wealthy. Director Ciarán O’Reilly keeps the action running at such a swift pace that the over two-and-a-half-hour running time seemingly flies. The biggest surprise is Aykroyd. She starts off like many of the sassy but trapped O’Neill women in many of his plays, but she brings such a force of nature to the part that she almost overpowers Cuccioli (don’t worry, his Con recovers and gives as good as he gets). This production was postponed by the pandemic but did have a successful streaming production online with most of the same cast and creatives. I didn’t see that stream, but when I asked a woman afterwards who did see it what she thought, she said, “It was great, but nothing beats seeing it in person.” Amen to that.
The Life (c) Joan Marcus
I was not a big fan of Cy Colman, David Newman and Ira Gasman’s musical “The Life” when it opened on Broadway in 1997. It felt like a sanitized version of the bad ole New York City of the 1980s and the hookers and their pimps who populate, specifically, the Times Square area. Colman even wrote a variation of hooker with a heart of gold in the musical “Sweet Charity,” and while “The Life” is certainly grittier, the bouncy score was still at odds with the milieu. So, when it was announced that actor Billy Porter would direct the musical with his own revised book, I was actually looking forward to how he would transform the show in a more realistic and rougher world that he himself experienced. The results were mixed. Maybe because he still has themes of his TV show on the brain, but this “Pose”-a-fication of “The Life” is both brave and totally out of left field. Queen (Alexandra Gray) is only a prostitute to make enough money to escape the city with her boyfriend/default pimp Fleetwood (Ken Robinson), but she has a run-in with the scariest pimp (sigh) of the city, Memphis (Antwayn Hopper), who wants to ensnare her into his harem. One person who sees what Memphis is up to is the strong-willed hooker Sonya (Ledisi), who even though she seems to have an unshakeable flu, wants to help Queen escape. Porter’s best touch was the funking up of the songs’ orchestrations. Adding AIDS into the story was fine and historically accurate, but making Queen into a trans woman feels arbitrary and her reveal felt almost like a joke. The actors try their best to make this all work, with Ledisi especially good in the part that won Lillias White a Tony Award, although undercutting the most popular song in the show, “The Oldest Profession” is a crime for the audience waiting for the big number. Will this new version of “The Life” have an afterlife after Encores!? Sadly, like the equally tampered with to make more relevant “The Tap Dance Kid” earlier this year, no.
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