Archive for June, 2019

Review – Summer Rolls – VanThanh Productions at Park Theater

June 28, 2019

In the last few years, the conversation about race and representation in the theater has moved beyond who is performing shows to who is writing them. This means that we’re seeing new shows and new voices, an exciting thing to be sure. And from this we see VanThanh productions emerge, with the stated purpose of enabling minority groups to tell their own stories – and we have the play Summer Rolls at the Park Theater, the first British-Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK. I’ve worked and lived alongside second generation Vietnamese Americans for most of my life, but I’m unfamiliar with what tack the British setting would give this story, and I was eager to hear from a community so little represented in the UK that they don’t even have a relevant checkbox in national origin questionnaires (because apparently “Chinese” is enough to cover East and Southeast Asia). What were their experiences? What where their concerns?

Linh-Dan Pham and Anna Nguyen in Summer Rolls at Park Theatre picture by Dante Kim

Linh-Dan Pham and Anna Nguyen in Summer Rolls at Park Theatre picture by Dante Kim

Mai (Anna Nguyen) is the daughter of two Vietnamese refugees (played by Linh-Dan Pham and Kwong Loke, and pretty consistently referred to as Mother and Father) who came to the UK with their young son Anh (Michael Phong Le) during the 70s (or so it appears from the cues given by newscasts read to start scenes). Anh succeeds at uni but then fails to get work; both the mother and daughter sew piece work for a Mr Dinh to keep the household solvent. It is a depressing picture of hard work unrewarded as, over the course of the show, the feeble earnings the women make are taken away (as the work is sent to China) and Anh goes to work at Mr Dinh’s restaurant.

Through this rather depressing story, a lot of traditional Vietnamese culture comes through: how women are treated; how class relations are seen; and (in a horrifying moment at the end when it’s discovered Mai has a black boyfriend – Keon Martial-Phillip) the rather pungent racism (that to be honest exists throughout East Asia). But the family also has to deal with leftovers from the war – Father’s flashbacks, Mother’s desperate survival instincts – and the special treats that come with being a minority and immigrants in a country where you are tolerated at best. It’s an interesting and well-seasoned story that provides a lot to chew on and is made more flavorful by Mai’s Vietnamese dialogue. We also get to see how assimilation affects Anh and Mai – their experiences trying to become a part of British society is eye opening (and would be just as interesting for so many other nationalities that have settled in the UK).

That said, the ending is abrupt and rather unsatisfying. This is, I think, the problem with having the play focus on Mai – she probably gets her life together and goes off to do her own thing, but we don’t really see her evolving as a character over the course of the play – we just stop after she has a confrontation with them and don’t have any resolution. For that matter, none of the rest of the characters appear to change or have any kind of epiphany, although most of them seem to have more backstory and places to go with their story arc. They’re all interesting and seem fairly rich (in everything but money!). Overall a good debut from playwright Tuyen Do.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 25th, 2019. It continues through July 13th.)

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Review – Pictures of Dorian Gray – Jermyn Street Theater

June 13, 2019

While Oscar Wilde’s plays mocking Victorian society are regularly revived, his novel of art and evil – The Portrait of Dorian Gray – doesn’t have a standard theatrical version, despite being popular as a film and even having some luck as a ballet and even as a promenade theatrical event. It’s a great novel, deliciously fin de siecle, a perfect companion for Jeckyll and Hyde, the poetry of Baudelaire, and the art of Von Stuck. And it deserved better than I had seen it get on stage before, and my hopes were high that Lucy Shaw’s fresh adaptation at the Jermyn Street Theater – and the decision to use four different configurations of the cast, including two versions with a female lead – would bring fresh insights and real vibrancy to this play.

As a female Dorian, Helen Reuben is deliciously chosen – endlessly fresh faced, a delight for the eyes, absolutely believable as the person whose portrait could capture the essence of beauty – or someone’s soul. As her tempter, Basil Hallward, Stanton Wright nicely forms heartless words to entice Dorian away from anything other than the worship of the self; and with the two of them decked in black velvet and gilding, they create a feeling of late night menace and brutality that makes the sensibility of the novel feel very alive. The portrait itself is left unseen, as is best for horror: it is merely a reflective pond beneath a muddled shining wall that might have been a mirror. The agelessness is left to the true Dorian; the ugliness of the portrait is created entirely with words.

These words, however, prove a distraction in too much of the story. With two more actors (most memorably painter Henry Wotten – Richard Keightley – and Sibyl Vane – Augustina Seymour) left with not quite enough to do, they are sent to speak Wilde’s words describing Gray’s words much like a Greek chorus – as a near constant chant beneath the dialogue on stage. The words do a lot to help pump up the atmosphere of poisoned flowers and redolent evil – but they prove too much of a distraction and ended in reducing the sense of impending doom. It’s all extremely successful when Dorian is immersing herself in corrupting literature – hard to convey what she is taking in otherwises – but when she’s going to opium dens and corrupting the wives and sons of the elite, the audience is given little sense of just what she is doing and why she is so out of control. Admittedly Wilde himself doesn’t go into much detail about Gray’s activities, but her time spent in the depths and ultimate ruination could have been built up to much better effect. Still, the ending is handled nicely, with beautiful theatricality, and the night ended with a grand feeling of satisfaction.

Picture C Cast, Pictures of Dorian Gray

Picture C Cast, Pictures of Dorian Gray: Helen Reuben, Augustina Seymour, Stanton Wright, Richard Keightley (L-R)

One thing really had me struggling, though: to a great extent, Gray’s fall is the fall of a man, and a gay man at that. While Reuben and Wright have a delicious electricity between them, it felt to me like it was only because Gray was a man and an affair between the two could not have been portrayed on stage (or in a book!) at the time this novel was written that they did not consummate their relationship. And women cannot ruin men the way Gray ruined both men and women. It was a pleasure to see this play done with a woman in the lead role, but I think some changes to the script for the “Picture C/Picture D” cast could have amped the impacted tremendously. That said, given Stanton Wright’s charisma, I think it would be worthwhile to see it again in the “Picture A/Picture B” configuration … this fine story has been brought to life with London smoke and back alleys intact, and I’d enjoy taking another trip down the road to glorious self destruction.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 11th, 2019. It runs through July 6th.)