Some critics whom I respect and many reviewers I do not refuse to write about student theater productions. Just as they have their reasons for not doing so, I have mine for continuing to write.
The first reason is that student productions are often rough in the best sense, and I believe with Peter Brook that, whenever theater is in danger of reducing itself to complete irrelevance, the Rough Theater saves the day. Students ought to be encouraged down this road as often as possible, especially by people outside of their own circles. The second reason is that students are much more likely to gamble on material that our commercial theaters view as too risky–which usually means something that won’t make them lots of money, or get them a glowing review by the conservative reviewers about town, who prefer to wax rhapsodic over vapid musicals and melodramas and who consider anything remotely emotional to be a mark of self-indulgence.
The other reason is that students incline toward making work that is personally important to them. It is important for them to do good work, but it is also important to do work that doesn’t personally bore them, work that they find speaks to them and their lives not just as actors but as people. This personal identification gives them a certain passion that, properly focused, helps to create a truthful immediacy rather than a mere earnestness. It makes it possible to play with conviction.
In this UTS production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, most of that passion is properly focused. Obviously young Asian American actors have a personal investment in discussing racism in American theater–and American society in general. No one will doubt their sincerity. What makes the production work, though, is that it is a deadly serious subject played with a high tone of farce. The mix of tones in the play prevents it from becoming too earnest, and Elizabeth Wu’s direction keeps the play moving by keeping it simple.
The overall conception of the production as a series of moving vignettes is perhaps more suited to discuss Asian American stereotypes derived from film, but these screens are not the silver screens of cinema. They are closer to the screens of Chinese shadow puppetry–itself an effective metaphor for a play about not seeing things as they are. Andrew Guy’s lights and Kayla Dreysse’s modular scene design are elegant and helpful.
Ms. Wu is also blessed to have a fine young cast who are committed to the play and its meaning. Mikko Juan plays the DHH role with a good mix of self-righteousness and self-awareness that helps the audience understand that the play’s theme is more complex than it might first appear. Despite a certain vocal weakness, Season Qiu gives his character of Henry a sensitive and thoughtful portrayal. Simon Tran is, as usual, delightful to watch in his multiple characters, as are Cory Lee and Peter Sakowicz. Anna Saephan and Gabrielle Boettner are capable enough in their mutiple roles but their roles make me a little sad that the playwright hasn’t given his female characters much to do. They are both truly beautiful young ladies and both have voices and stage presence, but they are waiting for the right piece to come along and showcase their true talents. I hope they do not have to wait too long.
I’m a bit less fond of Mickey McDonell’s portrayal of Marcus but in fairness the character is formidable to portray. Play him too tenderly and he descends quickly into bathos. Portray him too directly and audiences may miss the point. He has to seem like a fictional character, but a believable one. Mr. McDonell splits the difference but a bit too unevenly toward bathos, which weakens his portrayal, but I’d be a brute to chide him for it too harshly. As he matures as an actor, I suspect he will learn to split his differences much more aptly.
Still, as an ensemble, all of the actors work quite well together and this is a capable production of a good play. And it’s truly lovely to see a new generation of non-WASPy actors take on a work about the problems of being a non-WASPy actor. In Seattle, clearly we need to prepare our young minority actors for this and–lest there be another Mikado incident or even worse–we need to remind non-minority audiences, too.