Thursday, December 15, 2022

Theater Reviews: Three Recent Shows by Asian Writers Examine the Culture Clash in America, Focusing on Fame (“K-POP”), Buying a Better Life (“The Far Country”) and Politics (“Good Enemy”)

The Far Country (c) Ahron R. Foster

Theater: The Far Country 
At Atlantic Theatre Company

Playwright Lloyd Suh has essentially written a companion piece to last season’s historical drama “The Chinese Lady” with “The Far Country,” which could be subtitled “The Chinese Gentleman.” Like his earlier play, “The Far Country” starts soon after the turn of the century, this time in San Francisco, when Chinese men who live in America are scrutinized by US Immigration, especially after the Great Earthquake of 1906, when official records have been destroyed. So it is with Gee (Jinn S. Kim), who, in order to leave the country to visit his wife and children in China, needs to prove he was born in the US. But his personal records were also destroyed, which makes things difficult under the specter of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The story then switches a few years later to Moon Gyet (Eric Yang), a young man in rural China whose mother (Amy Kim Waschke) wants him to have a better life in America, but will essentially doom him to servitude as well as debt to Chinese gangsters for a down payment to set everything in motion. Moon’s tortuous story on Angel Island (the Bay Area’s Ellis Island, which doubled as a detention center), where he is supposed to spew minute facts (like how many steps did the entrance to his high school have), is the most harrowing section in Suh’s play. Finally, we follow Yuen (Shannon Tyo) and her efforts to marry her way to citizenship with the same awful terms that Moon had to accept. Suh is effective in showing us the bureaucratic red tape and the many interviews Chinese men had to endure because of the embedded racism in US laws. The repetition of these scenes, which may be realistic in its depiction, is, in the theater, not as dramatic as Suh probably means it to be. But overall, the play is quite stirring and emotional, although Suh does opt for a quiet ending when more anger could have been elicited. All the actors are first rate in Eric Ting's production, but again, like in her Theater Award-winning debut in “The Chinese Lady,” Shannon Tyo stands out as the strong-willed Yuen. Special mention has to be given to Clint Ramos’ set, which seems simple at first, but with Jiyoun Chang's dramatic lighting, gives us some memorable and hidden stage images. 

K-POP (c) Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Theater Review: KPOP 
On Broadway (closed) 

If there was any indication that young people are not immune to the charms of Broadway entertainment, you should have been in the audience of the recently closed Broadway musical, “KPOP,” filled with kids ranging from ten to sixteen hooting, dancing in their seats and singing along. The show, which follows the founder of the KPOP label/empire RBY, Ruby (Jully Lee), as she presents a live TV concert of three of her biggest acts, is not really a traditional musical as most of the songs are diegetic performances. The musical takes place the night before, where they are taping the performance just in case anything goes wrong with the live broadcast. But anything is going wrong: Ruby’s biggest star, the solo singer MwE (Luna), has a breakdown during the opening number and refuses to perform. The show then branches into two timelines, one in which the other two acts – the boy band F8 (pronounced fate) and their girl band counterpart RTMIS (pronounced Artemis) – deal with internal strife of their own, and the other where we see the rise of MwE from shy teen to mega-superstar. The MwE storyline is the most traditional and universal (she feels like the KPOP version of Celine Dion), and Luna, who is a KPOP star herself, gives the generic pop star journey some authenticity. The F8 boys are rejecting the newest member of their group, American-born Brad (an adorable Zachary Noah Piser), who doesn’t even speak Korean, while the RTMIS ladies are sort of short-shrifted in any real dramatic arc except to rally against being exploited by the director of the show, Harry (Aubie Merrylees), who has an agenda of his own. The problem is if you saw the superior off-Broadway site-specific version from 2017, which had the audience tour the K-POP factory, you would have seen a much more interesting investigation of the K-POP backstage world. It’s sad that they couldn’t find a way to make that work on a traditional Broadway stage. Instead, the creators reinvented the whole show, while serviceable, is admittingly rather predictable. But again, the story is really just the delivery service for the real draw, the performances of those catchy KPOP songs. And if you heard the screaming of those kids after each number (as well as at the stage door), it’s obvious that the KPOP phenomenon may need another chance to flourish on the Great White Way. 

Good Enemy (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Good Enemy 
At Audible/Minetta Lane Theatre (closed) 

Howard (Francis Jue) and his wife immigrated from China to the US in the 1980s, and that’s about all his daughter Momo (Geena Quintos) really knows about her parents. After the death of his wife (and a long pandemic lockdown) in which he has only seen his daughter on Zoom (and some rather racy TikToks), Howard decides to go cross country from California to New York City to visit Momo at college in person. She is surprised to see him in Brooklyn, as impulsiveness is not a trait she ever knew he had, while Howard is surprised to meet Momo’s White Boyfriend, as he is named in the program, and played by a good-natured Ryan Spahn. Momo finally confronts her father to find out about his life with his mother before she was born, which is seen in flashbacks, in an urban Chinese city, where a young Hao (Tim Liu) is a newbie policeman being asked by his boss (Ron Domingo) to infiltrate and collect evidence against a group of young people believed to be corrupted by Western culture. Hao can’t help but seem awkward at the club where he meets a young free spirit named Jiahua (Jeena Yi). Their budding friendship and possible romance raise the suspicion of Hao’s superiors. These scenes in 1980s China are the most intriguing, especially with the easy going charms of Liu and Yi as the young couple. The scenes in the present are entertaining but feel unnecessary and needlessly complicated. Momo’s ex-boyfriend (Alec Silver), a lot of swearing and the appearance of a gun are some of the elements that playwright Yilong Liu tries to spice up this section of the script to make it more dramatic. Francis Jue is always a pleasure to watch on stage, but Howard’s personality away from his daughter feels at odds to the reticent person she accuses him of being. Still the scenes in China are so compelling and dangerous (is Jiahua even going to turn out to be Momo’s mother?) that once we get the resolution with the past and the present finally connecting in a satisfying way, the two-storyline structure feels earned in director Chay Yew’s busy, but inventive production.

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