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.)