Did you ever see that Coca Cola commercial from 1970s, the one that had a couple thousand peace-seeking grownups and kids warbling “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”? Well, that’s basically Justin Yi’s motivation in climbing to the top of the Himalayas in Les Thomas’ new play Cave Quest.  To be more specific, the young Asian American wants to teach the world to “find inner peace” by means of a $49.99 video game. The key to Justin’s achieving this goal is a “legendary” Buddhist nun named Padma—who just happens to have started out a small-town Fresno girl named Ruby Riyono.

Despite Cave Quest’s rather improbable premise, West Liang’s quicksilver lead performance and some striking design work go a considerable ways toward making East West Players’ World Premiere production a fairly entertaining evening of theater.

Young Justin is the very personification of enthusiasm from the get-go.  We first meet him as he reaches Padma’s cave, exclaiming “I’m calm! I’m calm!” in the un-calmest of voices.  “Crazy big clouds!” he continues, gazing up at the sky. “It’s like real Imax!” Once he has persuaded the reclusive nun to open the door of her cave dwelling to him, Justin cries out in glee, “Padma in the flesh!  Look at you!!  I swear to the Buddha, I’m not a stalker. I just want to know everything about you!”  When the one-time Miss Riyono appears unreceptive, Justin goes on to explain just why he’s made the climb.  “I want to create a video game that leads to inner peace and enlightenment.”

As might be expected, Padma would like nothing better than for Justin to head back down the mountain from whence he came, but with a blizzard raging outside, it looks like her visitor will be sticking around at least till the weather calms. She offers him a beverage. “Is this some ancient herbal tea?” Justin wonders. “No, it’s Lipton’s,” responds the ex-Fresnoite, her taste in drink belying her Buddhist nun’s robes.  “What is it like not speaking for a long time?” Justin wants to know. “There are no words to describe it,” quips Padma.  

Words never seem to fail the chatty Justin, inspiring Padma to inquire, “How long have you ever been quiet?” “Eight or ten hours … when I’m sleeping,” retorts young Mr. Yi, who finds the nun surprisingly attractive with her “beautiful bone structure and perfect Pilates body.” Justin happens to have quite the toned body himself, but with the huge bag of pills he’s brought with him, he’s not only not the picture of good health, he’s a mess of fears and self-doubts, and his request for a hug from Padma is greeted by a succinct “No!”  Later, Justin does manage to teach the nun how to knuckle touch (“Almost a high five,” he explains) and she imparts her brand of New Age philosophy (“When you go deep enough, all is one.”) She instructs him in the proper way to eat rice—chew each grain fifteen times.  He returns the favor by giving her a box of Raisinettes.  She’s so happy with the gift, she levitates.

Not being into New Age philosophy, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone giving up their life in the U.S. to spend over 1800 consecutive days in a cave atop a Himalayan mountain peak without uttering a word. Not having ever owned (or perhaps even played) a video game to the best of my recollection, it’s even harder for me to buy that an intelligent young person would presume that inner peace and enlightenment could be found by playing a $49.99 game. 

On the other hand, Liang’s eager, engaging performance does go a long way towards making me believe in Justin—and like him not withstanding the fact that he hardly ever shuts up.  It’s because Liang is so darn appealing in the role that it’s also possible to buy that Padma too ends up quite taken by him, despite her initial (and justified) reservations.  This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen a West Liang performance, and the young actor never ceases to impress me with the spontaneity and versatility he brings to every role.

Despite the script’s shortcomings, Kim Miyori does quite good work as Padma née Ruby Riyono, but Cave Quest first has the reclusive nun underreacting to Justin’s sudden barging in and then, almost right away, calling him by his first name as if they were the best of friends.  

With director Diane Rodriguez’s lengthy credits (including the Fountain’s production of And Her Hair Went With Her, a production raved about on this site), it’s a good bet that she has done her utmost here, aided by her talented cast.  

Besides Liang, the other very good reason to see Cave Quest is its terrific design package. Scenic designer extraordinaire John Iacovelli’s Himalayan cave is so impressive, and decorated with such attention to detail (by property master Ken Takemoto), that it even looks cold, especially as lit by Christopher Kuhl.  Close your eyes and just listen to John Zalewski’s sound design and you’ll swear a blizzard is raging around you whenever Justin opens the cave door, with whispers of bad weather outside even when the door is shut tight.

Though Cave Quest is a definite step up from last season’s Ixnay, it’s been far too long since an Asian-themed work (Julia Cho’s superb Durango in 2007) has matched East West Player’s Asian-cast Broadway hits like this season’s Art, previous seasons’ Proof and Equus, or any of the company’s many great Sondheim revivals. Actors like Liang and Miyori, a director like Rodriguez, designers like Iacovelli and Zalewski, and East West Players’ devoted subscribers deserve world-class writing. This Cave Quest is not, though the aforementioned talents do indeed do a lot to make up for its shortcomings.  

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
February 17, 2010
                                                                     Photos: Michael Lamont

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