Review: A Language of Their Own by Chay Yew. Produced by Repertory Actor’s Theatre (ReAct). Directed by Victor Pappas. With David Hsieh, Joseph Steven Yang, Trevor Cushman, Alex Adisorn, and Evan Crockett. Now through May 12, 2012 at Richard Hugo House.
Let’s face it…the majority of things have an expiration date. Food. Drugs. Many relationships. The Polar Ice Caps. And, many forms of media including ad campaigns, (NOH8 pops into my mind as an example…); television shows, films, books, and in this instance, plays and any form of stage entertainment. Great works of art can obviously live a very long time but many things quickly become dated and really only exist in the confines of the time in which they were originally created and performed. The musical “Hair” is enormously entertaining with some terrific songs, but it still feels a bit out of touch and reeking of an exhibit in the Pop Culture Hall of Fame. The same thing is happening to “Rent” and it’s not just musicals that fall out of grace; last year, the Strawberry Theater Workshop produced “Inherit The Wind” and it was a problematic production not helped by the fact that the rather corny script was firmly trapped in mid 1950’s theatrical devices.
That’s not to say that old plays/musicals shouldn’t be performed, but they do need to be re-thought and staged with great care, otherwise you’re left with a production that’s out of touch and frankly a bit dull, like reading a really old history book with tons of footnotes and a drier than dust text. This doesn’t mean you need to add laser beams and jet packs to “Lil Abner” or full frontal nudity and sodomy to “Tea & Sympathy”, but it takes some careful staging and inventive interpretation to keep things fresh. Want proof? Think back to New Century’s amazing production of the very old play “The Adding Machine” a few years back…director John Langs worked miracles with that text.
Two local productions currently running could use a little freshening. The first one, Chay Yew’s “A Language of Their Own” produced by ReAct, is a 1994 play about the relationships between 4 gay men, three of them Asian American, at the nadir of The Age of AIDS. The story is presented in a series of monologues, given straight to the audience, and with brief dialogue scenes with frequent asides. “A Language of Their Own” does feature some beautifully written and poetic writing but the style and presentation of the material is very old-fashioned and bordering on the didactic. It also doesn’t help that the play was written at the worst point of the AIDS era; it’s very fatalistic and gloomy and the sense of doom hangs over the entire play; at that point in time, AIDS/HIV was a death sentence.
You could argue that it’s important to remember that time, but we have overcome it, (well, to a large degree) and it’s not entirely pleasant to relive a moment that’s ended. The play also wallows a bit in its fatality; there’s a sense of “Oh, us poor fags are doomed…woe is us!” that’s not especially empowering or relevant in this day and age. Like many plays about the original AIDS era, (As Is; The Normal Heart; Jeffrey; Rent) A Language of Their Own seems destined to become a museum piece. (Personally, I think only Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” will live on due to it’s artistry and the fact it’s not JUST an AIDS play as it deals with a bigger picture that includes politics, power, religion and history.)
Act One of “ALOTO” is a two hander focusing on the original relationship of Ming, a casual laid back, “banana” gay man; (yellow on outside; white on inside) and his relationship with the older, more traditional and far more conservative Oscar who’s been recently diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Oscar panics at his diagnosis and doesn’t want Ming to be trapped into caring for him so he ends the relationship, despite the fact both men still love each other very much.
Act Two introduces the two men’s new partners. Oscar has taken up with a much younger and very sexy Filipino-American student named Daniel, and Ming has started dating a white waiter named Robert. Both relationships are challenged by the fact that Oscar and Ming still have strong feelings for each other; Oscar’s declining health; and Ming’s inability to be monogamous. Things get violent and things get very sad as all these plot elements come to a head; the ending of “A Language of Their Own” is very bittersweet.
“A Language of Their Own” does have its charms. It was fascinating to see some insight into the gay Asian American community, even though it wasn’t always a pretty or safe look. There are some beautifully written moments, including a long passionate monologue about bathhouse sex. But, the overall feel of fatality, and the need to roll around in it, was off putting, and frankly the characters themselves weren’t always very nice to spend time with…the lead character of Ming, played by David Hsieh, is really a big asshole who’s shitty to his boyfriends and frequently abusive. I’m a big fan of anti-heroes in literature and art, but Ming is very difficult to like or admire. And, there’s quite a lot of surprising humor in “ALOTO” but it’s almost always tinged with sadness and the inevitability of an HIV/AIDS diagnosis in the 1990’s.
The acting is fine, the sets are simple and functional, and Victor Pappas manages to breathe a bit of life into staging that requires an excessive amount of placing actors directly facing the audience. The costumes were…bland and Oscar was dressed like he was auditioning for an Asian version of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”. All in all, “A Language of Their Own” feels like a period piece that belongs more in a museum, than on a stage.