Chicago Theatre Review
Behind the Red Doors
King of the Yees – Goodman Theatre
Along the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the home of the nation’s largest community of Chinese Americans, there’s a pair of glossy, red doors. They’re meticulously decorated with imperial sculptures and royal icons depicting various Chinese Dynasties. But what goes on behind this mysterious portal is the subject of a new play by Lauren Yee, now enjoying its world premiere in Chicago. The award winning playwright uses whimsy and offbeat comedy, contrasted with tension-filled adventure, to take her audience on a journey of cultural heritage and familial love.
Two years ago the Goodman Theatre commissioned this work by Ms. Yee for the prestigious 2015 New Stages Festival. Yee, the celebrated playwright of “Ching Chong China Man” and “Hookman,” soon to be seen at Chicago’s Steep Theatre, reunites with her longtime collaborator, Joshua Kahan Brody. The director again stages this play that’s just about as meta an experience as you can find. Brody fluctuates in his presentation of a new play, about the premiere of a new play, which is the subject of its own story. In Yee’s parody, characters, conversations and even the story itself is self-referenced over and over again. The result is often unexpectedly comic, continually keeping its audience off guard.
Without giving away too much, and spoiling the fun in store for future audiences, the play begins in regal splendor. William Boles’ sparse scenic design is liberally embellished by masterful Mike Tutaj’s magical mobile projections, Heather Gilbert’s moody lighting and an especially evocative sound design by Mikhail Fiksel. We first meet Larry Yee at those famous, magnificent red doors in Chinatown. He’s accompanied by his daughter, Lauren, who’s written a new play about the Yee Fong Toy, an obsolescent private club for the Yee family.
This play, which is presently premiering in Chicago (sound familiar?), will explore the organization’s origins and its significance in a changing San Francisco. Originally, like so many similar private clubs, this was a social center for generations of one, single family. However, group membership began dwindling in recent years, so Ms. Yee is probing whether or not such an organization is still relevant today. Established to create security and community, at a time when Asian immigrants were congregating out West during the building of the Intercontinental Railroad, such a private club now appears archaic.
But just when it seems as if we’re going to learn more about the Yee Fong Toy and its importance in the Chinese-American culture, we’re suddenly ripped from this two-hander, only to discover that these are merely actors playing Larry Yee and his daughter Lauren. Well, of course, we knew this; but then the “real” Larry Yee and his “real” playwright daughter show up on stage and take over. It’s from this point that the production becomes comically absurdist. The hilarity escalates when an audience member, played, naturally, by yet another actor, is brought on stage to represent a cousin of the extended Yee dynasty. Amidst all the realism-versus-fantasy, the production somehow manages to not only to entertain, but provide an overview of Chinese history.
Clad in Izumi Inaba’s colorfully creative costumes, this talented cast of five are exceptional. Francis Jue, seen recently in Goodman’s “The World of Extreme Happiness,” is terrific and lovable as 60-year-old patriarch, Larry Yee. Jue certainly understands this enormous role, having played Mr. Yee in the New Stages Festival reading of the play. He makes this quirky character charming and spunky. Jue fills the stage with surprising new mood and plot trajectories and unexpected character nuances. All this is created effortlessly and with such wonderful comic timing, so as to keep audiences on their toes.
As Lauren Yee, Stephanie Soohyun Park is lovely, eloquent and soon becomes the Alice character in this topsy-turvy Wonderland of an adventure. Just when the events seem to be rational, characters suddenly appear out of nowhere and circumstances drop in that shift the paradigm of existence. The sheer amount of dialogue, Lauren’s quest for magical elements and continual plot shifts confront this actress. But Ms. Park meets the challenge and is excellent at every turn.
Three remaining actors play numerous supporting roles throughout the two-hour production. Daniel Smith, as Actor One, begins as a strong, powerful, all-knowing Larry Yee, quite different, as we soon discover, from than the “real” Mr. Yee. He’s majestic and commanding in this role, but then he relaxes a bit as he becomes simply an actor, waiting for his cue in the greenroom. He shines in several other roles, as well. As Actor Two, Angela Lin starts off portraying the playwright, but morphs into a Korean actress getting dialect coaching from Smith, so as to authentically sound Chinese. Many other roles easily surround this wonderfully talented New York actress, especially her over-the-top Chinese merchant, who sells Lauren a bottle of her “best, cheap” booze. Actor Three is played with juvenile joy by Rammel Chan. He essays a variety of parts, including a jubilant Dragon Dancer. In one of the best, most joyful segments, Chan and the other two actors teach Ms Park how to properly do the Dragon dance. The segment is a musical mashup that combines everything from the Macarena, to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” to Korean pop star Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” This energetic dance-off is priceless.
For sheer entertainment value, Lauren Yee’s new comedy can’t be beat. Now premiering in Chicago, following its initial reading at the 2015 New Stages Festival, this delightful meta comedy will soon be seen at other theatres across the nation. The play is so unusual, it continually knocks the audience off its feet. This story of father/daughter relationship and cultural history owes much to such children’s classics as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. There’s even a bit of Sondheim’s musical, “Into the Woods” thrown in, for good measure, and the whole thing is quite simply a whole lot of fun.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 31-April 30 by the Goodman Theatre in their Owen venue, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Goodman box office, by calling them at 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Yees.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.