Red' Rises on the Strengths of Its Fine Ensemble
Chay Yew's play about the the Cultural Revolution's costs has obvious touches, but the East West Players production is effective.
By MICHAEL PHILLIPS, Times Theater Critic
Jeanne Sakata, in dunce cap, and Page Leong perform in "Red."
PERRY C. RIDDLE
East West Players has made things easy for you. If you want to catch three of the best performances in town, they're all in the Los Angeles premiere of Chay Yew's "Red," by way of Emily Kuroda, Page Leong and Jeanne Sakata.
It's the 36th season opener for East West, and with this ensemble, the company sets its standards high.
"Red" has popped up in several incarnations since 1998. This summer, with the author directing the same performers, Yew's three-character piece played the Singapore Arts Festival in a production of the Singapore Repertory Theatre. No wonder, then, that Kuroda, Leong and Sakata know where they're going with Yew's problematic but yeasty text every step of the way. Every exchange, every highly charged pause, every dynamic peak is filled; no watch me-watch me-watch me business. Even when Yew's poetic impulses smother his dramatic ones, you're compelled to watch these charactersartists changed forever by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, that massively cruel slate-cleaning exerciseand to listen.
Our tour guide is Sonja Wong Pickford (Kuroda), a popular Chinese American author of such "exotic" Mysterious East bestsellers as "Love in the Jade Pagoda" and "Bound Feet, Bound Lives." She's a borderline burnout case and has returned to her native Shanghai to recharge.
In a crumbling old opera theater, she meets the ghost of the Chinese opera star Hua Wai Mun (Sakata, in an inspired bit of cross-gender casting). A spirit? A dream? Yew's second scenethe transitions here are many and pleasingly dreamlike; it's one of the writer's real strengthstakes Sonja and the audience back to 1966, the start of the Cultural Revolution. A Red Guard soldier, Ling (Leong), is deprogramming Hua, the dreaded counterrevolutionary, in between Ling's choruses of the revolutionary song "Our red flag flies defiant in the sky!"
Often cleverly, sometimes confusingly, Yew delves into the relationships between Hua and Ling; between Hua and the unseen stage manager; between Sonja and her Hua and Ling, possible subjects for a book. Yew's good with dramatic fluidity and slippery timelines, despite the occasional where-are-we-now? moment.
He also has an obvious streak. As Ling, the good Mao subject, takes over Hua's opera house and begins filling it with rah-rah drivel, Yew draws some oblique but rather tired parallels to America's late 20th century attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. Also, Yew's writing can become lyrical to a fault. He might profitably invest in an adjective-whacker: The word "large" is used at least three times to describe something that doesn't need to be described as large.
Despite the excesses, he always had an ear. In Yew's earlier play "Porcelain," the jangle of opposing ideas came through in quick, elliptical exchanges. Same in "Red." Straight off in the East West staging, with Leong's Red Army flunky trying to break the proud Sakata's spirit, the suspense is considerable.
Leong has it toughest of the three, because she's playing the ideology-spewing antagonist, but the character does reveal a wrinkle or two in the later going. Kuroda's playing a kind of cultural observer and sometimes feels confined to her narrator chores, but near the end, she gets the opportunity for stronger stuff and doesn't squander it. Sakata is superb throughout. The physical production's very simple but effective, with Myung Hee Cho's crimson raked set floodedstrikingly so in the gorgeous final imageby Jose Lopez's lighting.
Yew's brand of outrage has its callow side. It's not hard to work up a stageful of righteous indignation over the human costs of the Cultural Revolution; it's harder to flesh out the humans behind the costs. When "Red" does, it's intriguing. Even when it doesn't, Yew the director, working with three superlatively talented actors, does very well by Yew the playwright.
East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso Street (between Temple and 1st), Little Tokyo, downtown. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. No performance 2 p.m. this Saturday. Ends Oct. 28. $15-$30. (213) 625-7000.. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Emily Kuroda: Sonja
Page Leong: Ling
Jeanne Sakata: Master Hua
Jess Ibatuan, Brian Pac, Stefanie Wong, Pauline Yasuda: Stage Assistants
Written and directed by Chay Yew. Scenic design by Myung Hee Cho. Costumes by Anita Yavich. Lighting by Jose Lopez. Music and sound design by Nathan Wang. Choreography by Dr. Chua Soo Pong and Madam Li Xiu Hua. Production stage manager Victoria Gathe.