Review: King of the Yees by Lauren Yee. Produced by ACT. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. Choreography by Annie Yee. Scenic Design by Carey Wong. Costume Design by Christine Tschirgi. Lighting Design by Jessica Trundy. Sound Design by Brendan Patrick Hogan. With Khanh Doan, Stan Egi, Ray Tagavilla, Annelih GH Hamilton, and Joseph Ngo. Now through October 1, 2017 at ACT.
Lauren Yee’s autobiographical-ish play KING OF THE YEES puts the 31 year old playwright center stage as the main character in the story as “Lauren Yee” an up and coming playwright in San Francisco working on an autobiographical play about herself and her dad with two Asian actors in a room in “The Yee Family Association” in Chinatown, one of those old school men’s club/family associations so predominant in Asian American culture but also woefully out of date and out of touch with modern sensibilities. Well, at least according to Lauren herself who tends to be a bit embarrassed by her over exuberant father who is the current president of the Yee Family Association and its biggest cheerleader. She’s also as a tad uncomfortable with certain manifestations of Asian culture…Lauren doesn’t speak Chinese and she seems lost and bewildered by the “foreign-ness” of things that could be borderline caricatures of Chinese culture. The spirits, demons, prophecies and symbols of “Olde Chinatown” seem remote, extreme and unfamiliar to her.
But, when her father gets mixed up in a local political scandal and subsequently disappears, “Lauren” must navigate the mysterious alleys and back ways of that culture to find not only her father but to find a way to accept aspects of her culture that have made her uncomfortable. With the aid of three actors, all playing multiple roles and various aspects of Chinese and Chinese American culture ranging from formidable “Tiger Lady” Grandmas to cutthroat gangsters to Lion Dancers and family ghosts, Lauren learns to connect with her culture and the father who loves and embraces it.
Ms Yee’s play is a fast paced, joyous, rollercoaster ride through those dark alleyways of Chinatown and Chinese-American culture and it fascinates while it educates. “Lauren” learns great lessons about that rich culture but so does the audience. There’s great humor and warmth in the piece and it’s not afraid to examine and wryly comment on but ultimately cherish many different aspects of that world. Desdemona Chiang has done a great job of staging this play in the round at ACT; the play jumps quickly jumps around a lot from scene to scene and the transitions are smooth…there’s a great “chi” to this play as it flows from one mysterious encounter to another.
The cast is strong led by Khanh Doan as “Lauren” and Stan Egi as her dad Larry. Ms Doan has to play “straight man” so she doesn’t get to have the big, crazy comedic moments the other actors get, but she nicely anchors the proceedings with her sincerity in presenting the honesty of the character. Mr. Egi is very funny as the over enthused dad…at times, the performance feels a bit big (or is it the writing? a combo of both?) but the charm of the actor smooths out the rougher edges of the “bigness” of the character. Other thing to note of opening night: Lauren Yee was in the audience that night so it was a bit meta to see Khan Doan as “Lauren” directing actor Annelih GH Hamilton playing a variation of “Lauren” in the play within a play during the opening moments of THE real play with the ACTUAL playwright visible in the audience and within the same “frame” as two actors playing her in character.
The three actors playing the “Actors” playing all the other roles actually have the best parts and the most fun. In addition to Ms Hamilton, local favorite Ray Tagavilla as “Actor 1” and Joseph Ngo as “Actor 3” were huge highlights of the show, particularly Mr. Tagavilla’s very funny take on a local gangster and Mr. Ngo as a wryly wise Ghostly Ancestor.
It’s a charmer and worth your time to check out.