KING OF THE YEES

Chinese-American playwright Lauren Yee pays affectionate, rib-tickling, ultimately quite touching tribute to her dad Larry in King Of The Yees, a Center Theatre Group World Premiere now both delighting and illuminating audiences of all racial-ethnic-cultural persuasions at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.

It’s Yee and her father themselves who escort us to “a door on Waverly Place in San Francisco’s Chinatown” behind which generation upon generation of male Yees have formed part of Yee Fûng Toy Goông Saw, the Yee Fung Toy Family Association, an organization Lauren deems obsolescent but which has, for nearly twenty years “swallowed” her father’s life.

Larry sees it differently. “You gotta support your community,” he declares, which is why there’s no fiercer supporter of California State Senator Leland Yee’s run for Secretary Of State, something we discover at lights-up when Larry interrupts his daughter as she rehearses the two actors (Angela Lin and Daniel Smith) we’ve just seen standing in for the playwright and her dad.

Well, actually, the “Larry Yee” who bursts into the Kirk Douglas like a Chinese New Year firecracker is an actor too (scene-stealer Francis Jue), and writer-director Lauren isn’t really playwright Lee but Korean-American actress Stephenie Soo Hyun Park, a Chinese puzzle made even more mind-blowing on Opening Night by the presence of the honest-to-goodness Lauren and Larry Yee in the house.

If all this sounds more than a bit metatheatrical, well we’re only a few minutes into King Of The Yees, and the ride has only just begun.

Under Joshua Kahan Brody’s exhilarating direction, Rammel Chan, Lin, and Smith bring to life a myriad of colorful characters including “audience members” Danny Ma, whose last name turns out to be his family’s “paper name” and Jenny Pang, an activist impatient for playwright Yee to “tackle the bigger issues facing Chinatown”; Chinese gangster Shrimp Boy, the very mention of whose name provokes thunderous shivers; the literally face-changing Sichuan Face Changer; a pair of Chinese New Year Parade-ready Lion Dancers; Model Ancestor, said to have saved the Yees when hundreds of years ago they were being slaughtered; and even the not so squeaky-clean Leland Yee himself.

Playwright Yee prefaces her play by declaring that “a lot of this is true, but a lot of it is only kind of true, just like the stories your father once told you as a child,” a remark whose whimsy is reflected throughout King Of The Yees’ intoxicating two acts, the first of which serves as a kind of primer into the not always Chinese-American Asian-American experience, the second of which takes Lauren on a contemporary Odyssey that will have her scavenging San Francisco’s Chinatown for a particular brand of whiskey, oranges, and firecrackers needed to unlock the Yee Fung Toy Family Association’s red-and-gold doors for reasons I’ll leave you to discover.

Park anchors the production with the evening’s (deliberately) least flashy performance, but one rich in nuance, feeling, and prickly charm, then lets the actors surrounding her take flight.

Chan, Lin, and Smith dazzle again and again in more roles, costumes, and accents than I could possibly count.

As for Jue’s irrepressibly effervescent Larry, it’s rare that a performance so expands on what’s on the printed page that it takes on a life of its own, but Jue’s does just that. (Rarely too has the term “conspicuous absence” felt more true than during Larry’s Act Two vanishing act.)

Produced in association with Goodman Theatre where it played a few months back, King Of The Yees reunites its Chicago design team (scenic designer William Boles, costume designer Izumi Inaba, lighting designer Heather Gilbert, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, and projection designer Mike Tutaj), all five of whom do thrillingly colorful, imaginative work.

David S. Franklin is production stage manager. Tanya Palmer is dramaturg. Casting is by Adam Belcuore, CSA and Erica Sartini-Combs

I left the Kirk Douglas not merely entertained but a whole lot more knowledgeable about things Chinese-American (and eager to learn more). Invigorating as all get-out and every bit as filled with fascinating facts as it is with risk-taking whimsy, King Of The Yees reigns supreme out Culver City way.

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Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City.
www.centertheatregroup.org

–Steven Stanley
July 16, 2017
Photos: Craig Schwartz

 

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