Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Yellow Face": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

It took the full forty minute drive home from Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. When the reviewer left the theater he wasn't sure if he'd liked David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face" or not. Unquestioned was the brilliance of the show's concept -- that every person wears one face that the public sees, but there is another person, with a different face, underneath. Perhaps we humans change faces much as a snake discards skins, which is to say we grow.

Inevitable growth seems to be Hwang's conclusion -- the younger playwright, whose face was that of the Asian activist, battling "Yellow Face" (the trivialization of Asians in films and on television, even to the point of hiring Caucasians to play Asians in roles written for Asians), now has grown older and perhaps wiser. He has come to see that there are other issues involved here. Perhaps he has a new face, or perhaps the old one just has a few more lines in it.

The young D.H.H. (played thoughtfully by Pun Bandhu) finds himself in the exact situation he has protested against ten years earlier. For his new play, which is opening in only a few weeks, he desperately needs to find a macho, Asian lead. But there don't seem to be any. At the last minute, Marcus (Thomas Azar) appears -- a white man who has discovered he can pretend to be Asian because no one will actually come out and ask him his ethnicity -- they are either prohibited by law or afraid of seeming racist.


But Asian Shmasian. D.H.H. needs Marcus -- so he has to figure out a way to convince himself and his Asian supporters that Marcus is actually -- Eurasian. When he discovers Marcus's father is a Russian Jew, he introduces Marcus as 'Marcus Gee,' and then manages to pass him off as Siberian, and therefore -- somehow -- Asian enough.

The idea is so preposterous it feels completely natural.

Ah, if only the whole play was as strong as that million dollar concept. But that's basically it. There is little drama, less build-up, limited excitement, and only one character who is ever developed. But that one character almost saves the show.

The riveting Francis Jue plays H.W.H., the playwright's father. Though Jue, as well as co-stars Robert Ernst, Amy Resnick, Howard Swain and Tina Chillip play multiple roles, it is when Jue is the father and Pandhu the son that our insides are touched. When we see the old man, who loves his adopted America more than life itself, and has always dreamed of being Jimmy Stewart, now persecuted by the FBI later in his life, while never losing his faith in his country, we understand the issues clearly.

The rest of the play is more slapstick, as other members of the cast (Jue included) lampoon newscasters and US Senators and the media in general. They may be mimicking actual events, but drama it ain't. And with the exception of Tina Chillip's amusing Fred Thompson, they're not all that funny either.

It is as if Hwang needed to get D.H.H. out of his system. He is a gifted writer and if he wants a new face, he can have a new face. We don't really care which face he chooses, but we hope his next play will have a little more plot and heart.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Yellow Face" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. It's too bad, really -- it's such a good idea but it just isn't a four star show. Francis Jue is brilliant. As H.W.H., as Margaret Cho and as the spurned Asian actor passed over for Marcus Gee, Francis Jue earns his own BANGLE OF PRAISE.

"Yellow Face" will give you several belly laughs, and you will drive home thinking about your own face and how it looks to others and to yourself, and that's what great art is supposed to do. When you get home, you will very likely think, as this reviewer does, that you're happy you saw the show.

"Yellow Face"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Sept. 20

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