The NAC King of the Yees fails to mesh

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

King of Yees. Provided by the NAC English Theatre

 

 

So whats exactly happening on the stage of the Babs Asper Theatre at the National Arts Centre? Well now,  let’s see. There are such ingredients as identity angst, the generation gap, urban politics, racial stereotyping, cultural dislocation, a search for “meaning” in life. We also get smidgeons of naturalism, surrealism, dada, Brechtian and absurdist devices glued together by low-vaudeville buffoonery — all hopefully stirred into American playwright Lauren Yee’s dramatic pot in expectation of a coherent whole. A picturesquely conceived lion occasionally makes a manic appearance along with a chiropractor who’s really a sadistic needle-plunging acupuncturist — or is he actually a herbalist? There’s a swaggering caricature of aTong gangster — Shrimp Boy by name — whose presence triggers a street shoot-out that manages to throw an already discordant offering even more off track.

All this is being offered in the guise of a play called King Of The Yees. Vancouver’s respected Gateway Theatre deserves credit for providing moments that do connect with the audience, given the foolhardy, not to say reckless, nature of the script. But the attentive direction of Sherry J. Yoon and the responsive work of a talented five-member cast are not sufficient to salvage material that begins promisingly and then flounders.

It is at its core a highly personal work, triggered by playwright Lauren Yee’s need to explore her relationship with her own father, Larry Yee, presented here as a lovable fixture in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a man comfortable in his culture, determined to uphold the good name of Yee, and baffled by a daughter who has moved away from her roots to the extent of acquiring a Jewish husband and planning a move to Berlin.

There’s certainly precedent for dramatists to bring their personal lives on stage, Tennessee Williams did it with The Glass Menagerie and Eugene O’Neill with Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But these classics have a sustained focus and intimacy. In the case of King Of The Yees, there are certainly glimpses of the play that might have been — moments when Lauren, portrayed here with a tricky blending of edge and compassion by Andrea Yu, tries to negotiate her way across the cultural gulf that has gradually emerged between her and her warm-hearted but sometimes exasperating father. The latter is played wonderfully by Gateway artistic director Jovanni Sy in the most sustained characterization of the evening.

But Yee has sought a broader canvas that sprawls in too many different directions and takes on conflicting identities. Playgoers can therefore be forgiven for often not knowing whether the script is sending up cliche perceptions of Chinatown culture or seeking to reinforce aspects of that culture. Sometimes the satirical jabs do work — for example a ping-pong verbal exchange between performers Donna Soares and Raugi Yu over which methods of pronunciation will best guarantee winning work in a white-dominated Hollywood film industry — but too often, as is the case with  this scene, they run on too long.

And what about the tonal variations that undermine more serious dramatic concerns? Larry Yee, Lauren’s good-natured parent, finds his illusions shattered in when a local politician he has long supported — who’s also named Yee — faces corruption charges. That’s when a devastated Larry prowls the streets of Chinatown tearing down election posters before making a symbolic disappearance through the imposing doors of the Yee Association headquarters.

A distraught Lauren’s search for her father degenerates into of a series of tests imposed on her if she wishes to be successful. But her quest for the perfect orange, the best fireworks and the strongest whisky sends the play skidding into tiresome farce.

Playwright Yee has also decided on a play-with-in-a-play device. The conceit here is that she is trying to direct a play about her father with the use of hired “actors” but is constantly being derailed in her efforts by the cheerful interruptions of the real Larry Yee; possibly it’s Larry’s shade — who are we to know? And what dramatic need is all this really intended to service?

Meanwhile, we do encounter passages of incisive, communicative writing. We have fluid direction from Sherry J. Yoon, a splendid pair of mythic doors from set designer Pam Johnson, some spectacular costuming from Mara Gottler,  atmospheric lighting from Gerald King, and a quintet of committed performances from Jovanni Sy, Andrea Yu, Milton Lim, Donna Soares, and Raugi Yu. We also have dramatic overreach to an unfortunate degree — and that remains the evening’s Achilles’ heel.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman. Photo courtesy of hte NAC English Theatre.

King of the Yees

By Lauren Yee

A Gateway Theatre production (Richmond, BC)

National Arts Centre to November 11.

 

Director: Sherry J. Yoon

Set: Pam Johnson

Lighting: Gerald King

Sound: Stefan Smulovitz

Costumes: Mara Gottler

Technical director: Liam Kupser

 

Cast:

Larry………………………………………………………….Jovanni Sy

Lauren………………………………………………………..Andrea Yu

Actor #1………………………………………………………Raugi Yu

Actor #2………………………………………………………Donna Soares

Actor #3………………………………………………………Milton Lim

 

 

 

 


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