In Mike Lew’s Tiger Style, Albert Chen is the congenial, underperforming younger brother of Jenny, a first rate doctor with a third rate love life. The 30-something Chinese Americans share the burden of navigating the chasm between being born in Southern California yet being viewed as exotic in the case of Jenny or muted as Albert is. They vow to get out of their boxes even though they have no experience in out-of-the box thinking. What they lack in rebellious nature, they make up for in their bond to one another. But is “you and me against the world” enough of a force to create change? Certainly the characters swing for the fences, going all the way to another country in search of the right tools. Act II takes place primarily in Shenzhen, China where they have familial roots. While the tone expectantly shifts, the direction of that shift is surprising and the work veers towards farce.
Director Chongren Fan expertly steers the action through the varying beats. The stage is triangular, with two sides often hosting different scenes. The set by Chika Shimizu incorporates multiple doors and revolving walls that help us move quickly to each location. These pieces take on a mood elevating function in the more physical Act II. Simple elements define each location: a Beyoncé quotation over Jennifer’s couch, a chaise in the therapist’s office, and a wooden bar and chairs in the parents’ home. Costume design by YuanYuan Liang is similarly stripped down, with an Oscar the Grouch T-shirt and matching plaid jackets helping to define characters. Sparkling fabrics make their arrival in the second half of the play when the siblings’ outfits also undergo subtle changes. While these likely began as budgetary requirements, the effect helps to draw parallels between Jenny’s and Albert’s American lives and their experiences in China. They are essentially living in the same apartment with the same “baggage.” Yi-Chung Chen’s light design includes chase lights around the floor tiles which cleverly add definition and sense of place.
Brandon Ruiter, Brian Kim McCormick, and Eileen Rivera perform well in multiple roles, but with little differentiation. The impact of this creative decision puts the weight of success squarely on the shoulders of the two central characters. The appealing Hyunmin Rhee plays Albert with warmth and charming bewilderment while the sharp Stephanie Shum finds heart at the center of the frustrated Jenny. The dynamic between them has the perfect balance of friction and affection. Making the most of Lew’s nicely crafted banter, the two actors bounce off each other in genuine rhythm that functions as a metronome holding the disparate tones of the work together.
Tiger Style begins boldly as an exploration of cultural inheritance and racial profiling. It’s a heavy lift for a generally light script that concludes with physical comedy and word play. The experience is certainly enjoyable, but lacks some of the lasting impact of Lew’s Teenage Dick. Performances run through April 10 in the West Theatre at TheatreSquared, 477 W. Spring Street in downtown Fayetteville, Arkansas. Tickets range from $20-$54 and can be purchased at theatre2.org. As an alternative, a 24 hour digital pass starts at noon on your chosen day which is how I was able to enjoy the work all the way in New York City. Live runtime is 2 hours and 15 minutes (1:54 when streamed without intermission.)
The Merry Wives of Windsor — Shakespeare’s only play that centers around everyday working folk — is a wonderful selection for the Public Theater’s 2021 offering. This production arrives after a difficult stretch which renewed awareness of our neighbors and neighborhoods. For this rendition, the location has been dropped from the title and the spouses in question have been moved to South Harlem. There, Farai Malianga engages with the audience as a congenial street drummer. After a quick lesson in African diaspora, he ushers in the local residents who will share their story. Layabout John Falstaff has grown weary of his VR light saber and nutrition-free snacking and is ready to get out and mingle. He has his eye on Mmes Ekua Page and Nkechi Ford, two close friends with husbands of means. Even his wooing is lazy and he sends the exact same love letter to them both. Thankfully they are clever bad ass women who know how to handle themselves. Ekua has the additional responsibility of finding a suitable match for her beautiful daughter, Anne. She has her heart set on the prestigious Doctor Caius, while Mr Ford has selected Slender, a sweet but rather simple young man. But like her mother, Anne has a mind of her own and her lover of choice is not negotiable.
Saheem Ali’s staging takes advantage of the Delacorte’s airy space, filling it with the vibrant energy of his enthusiastic ensemble. Jacob Ming-Trent is a total joy as a noisy, brash, and notorious-in-his-own-mind Falstaff. His journey via laundry basket has never been funnier. There is such warmth and charm in his performance, one feels a bit sorry about his treatment at the hands of far wittier Wives. Susan Kelechi Watson’s Madam Ford grabs attention with her fabulous moves while Pascale Armand’s Madam Page is a commanding and calculating conspirator. Both employ West African accents which add flavor though may present a challenge for unaccustomed ears. Shola Adewusi as Mama Quickly and David Ryan Smith as the dapper doc make the most of their two dimensional characters with their impeccable timing.
Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh has condensed Shakespeare’s comedy to a brisk 110 minutes and spiced up the language with modern slang and appropriate cultural references from jollof rice to Dreamgirls. Upbeat musical cues by composer Michael Thurber as well as Dede Ayite’s brilliant outfits set off with hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan punch up the energy. Stagehands outfitted as sanitation workers work speedily to redress the backgrounds. The colorfully rendered settings by Broadway vet Beowulf Boritt include a hair braiding salon, laundromat, family clinic and walkup apartment house, though nothing tops the natural beauty of the park itself, revealed in its natural splendor for the final scene.
The material is not the only part of the equation that is an appropriate match to this moment. While much of the venue is seated at full capacity, sections are reserved for those who prefer to remain masked and distanced. A fleet of volunteers help everyone find their place quickly and enforce protocols as needed. The touchless program is accessed using a QR code on the seatback.
The entirety of Merry Wives is a celebration of life, tolerance, and togetherness. It is a love letter to New York and New Yorkers and a wonderful excuse to share a belly laugh in a crowd after a long stretch in isolation. In particular, it is a fitting tribute to the residents of Seneca Village, the 19th Century Black community that lived on the land that is now occupied by Central Park. Performances have been extended through September 20. Visit https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2021/sitp/merry-wives/ for free ticketing information.
Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) is colliding with fame rather than experiencing a gentle brush with it. Similar to Robin Thicke and his “Blurred Lines,” Robbie’s catchy “Bad Decision” (written in our world by Max Vernon and Helen Park) is a hit that is being met with charges of plagiarism and backlash for what some perceive as “rapey” lyrics. Unlike Thicke, who brashly defended himself (and was ultimately fined millions of dollars and served with divorce papers), Robbie internalizes every boo from the audience. In deep need of a mental break, he has ditched his upbeat manager, Joe (Reggie D. White), and taken a multi-motivated cab ride to his hometown of Pottsville. His return engagement begins with his devoted music teacher, Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh), who shares headlines from the nearly 12 years since he moved to the west coast. He is her success story and she serves as a surprisingly insightful mother figure. She also has an adopted daughter, Tina (Monica Ho), who was once Robbie’s best friend with ambitious dreams of her own. But Joe has visions of sold-out tours and five album deals and won’t leave his star act alone with his memories for long.
Lauren Yee’s The Song of the Summer —a romantic comedy with music — is certainly lighter than her breakthrough Cambodian Rock Band and might better fit this moment when audience members are trepidatiously returning to theaters. Robbie and Tina have the lively chemistry of many odd couples. Robbie’s meandering decision-making is sheathed in luck while Tina’s more directed path has taken many unplanned hairpin turns. Kahn in particular is a believably awkward and loving teen in flashbacks. But though the playwright reveals the roots of Robbie’s self criticism and esteem issues, she only gives us the briefest whiff of his potential to climb out of the pit and blossom. It’s a frustratingly thin resolution to Robbie’s genuine problems and our mostly enjoyable 90 minutes with him.
Director Bill English employs his usual skill in developing all of the relationships. Quieter connections are never overshadowed with comedic business. His scenic design is equally artful in bringing small-town warmth and eccentricity to the visuals. Mrs. C’s worn, skirted furniture fits her as well as her housecoat by costume designer Stephanie Dittbern. And one can practically smell the beer and cigarettes in the tacky karaoke bar. Projections by Teddy Hulsker slowly snap into place, filling out the setting. The exception is a distracting and seemingly unnecessary hobo bag that constrains Tina’s movement in the critical final scenes.
San Francisco Playhouse is thoughtfully offering this work On Demand as well as a live performance. However, after serving up several beautifully filmed productions, this is delivered as a back-of-the-house live stream. Whatever benefit is gained from the sense of immediacy is greatly offset by jerky camera work and flawed audio that loses many of Ms. Ho’s more intimate lines.
The Song of the Summer is a good natured if slight diversion. In-person performances at 450 Post Street in San Francisco have reduced audience capacity and safety protocols in place. The on-demand video stream will be available throughout the run which ends on August 14, 2021. Tickets for either version begin at $15 and can be purchased at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-song-of-summer/.
From the opening phone call (an old narrative device cleverly employed), you know what drives ambitious lawyer Sammy Campo in Rob Ulin’s hilarious modern comedy, Judgment Day. Samuel is greedy beyond compare, defies the law he practices, and reframes every narrative to make himself look like a hero. He is also about to die. On the way to his hellish unrest, he is confronted by his former Sunday school teacher. Now an angel, she gleefully delivers the bad news of damnation to this once naughty boy turned worse adult. Recognizing that she has badly bent the rules by approaching him before he’s quite breathed his last, the silver tongued devil talks his way into a second chance at life in order to rack up the points he needs to be sent to heaven instead.
Returned to earth, Sammy sets out to do good without actually BEING good. It’s a warped journey gleefully interpreted by Jason Alexander, an unsurpassable master of the rant. To fulfill his plan, he enlists the help of a Catholic Priest portrayed with doubt and discomfort-tinged charm by Santino Fontana. Casting Director Patricia McCorkle deserves her own standing ovation for filling the entire ensemble with such remarkable foils for Alexander. All bring out the best in Ulin’s well constructed banter under the practiced direction of TV vet Matthew Penn. These also include Justina Machado as Sammy’s wife Tracy, by turns vulnerable and fury-driven, and great find Julian Emile Lerner as his edgy mini-me son, Casper. The always assured Loretta Devine leverages her knowing stare and purring voice as assistant Della and Patti LuPone is clearly having a blast as the long dead Sister Margaret. In smaller supporting roles, Michael McKean (Monsignor), Josh Johnston (Doctor), Bianca LaVerne Jones (Principal), Michael Mastro (Jackson) and Elizabeth Stanley (Chandra) make the most of their interactions while the indispensable Carol Mansell almost steals the show as Edna, the slightly slow widow who becomes one of Sammy’s clients.
The script is a brilliant choice for web-based entertainment. Ulin — writer/producer for Ramy, Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne among other brainy comedic hits — has a remarkable way with language and wordplay. This allows Penn to avoid the common pitfalls of Zoom from effects to false movement. Scene-setting black and white drawings dissolve to the actors in front of solid white backgrounds. Characters’ spacial relationships are established with the use of the stunningly well-timed handoffs of props. Original music by Jordan Plotner supports the naughty tone of the work.
The pandemic has brought forth many a profound production exploring the freshly exposed rips in our social fabric. While Judgment Day may make you contemplate what constitutes goodness, it’s most valuable contribution to this moment is undoubtably to make you laugh. A lot. (Thank god?) This encore presentation in support of Barrington Stages is available to stream on Stellar (https://www.stellartickets.com/o/barrington-stage/events/judgment-day.) from July 26-August 1. Runtime is a breezy 83 minutes. Tickets are only $11.99. Advance purchase using the code “EARLY” and receive a $4 discount.