‘King’ tri­umphs in a dizzy­ing way

Lauren Yee brings ques­tions of iden­tity and fam­ily to sur­real life in Cul­ver City.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By F. Kath­leen Fo­ley cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Lauren Yee’s play starts out straight­for­wardly enough: An ac­tress play­ing Yee (Stephe­nie Soohyun Park) is re­hears­ing the play with an ac­tor por­tray­ing the play­wright’s father, Larry Yee (Fran­cis Jue). Sud­denly, the “real” Larry Yee ar­rives at the the­ater, full of en­thu­si­asm and un­wel­come sug­ges­tions. The “real” play­wright Lauren Yee can barely con­tain her ir­ri­ta­tion at the in­ter­rup­tion.

This kind of dizzy­ing fun­house ride into an al­ter­nate re­al­ity and then back again is “King of the Yees,” pre­sented in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Good­man The­atre of Chicago at Cen­ter The­atre Group’s Kirk Douglas The­atre in Cul­ver City.

Al­though the play can be mad­den­ingly ran­dom, it is a de­light­fully dis­or­derly en­ter­tain­ment, as sprawl­ing and silly as it is un­ex­pect­edly mov­ing.

In the play — and in real life — Larry is a proud mem­ber of the Yee Fung Toy Fam­ily Assn., a Chi­nese Amer­i­can men’s club formed 150 years ago. As a pub­lic­minded booster with a strong at­tach­ment to his proud Yee lin­eage, Larry re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge that his club is on the rocks — as is the fi­nan­cially be­lea­guered Chi­na­town of San Fran­cisco, where the Yees had prospered for gen­er­a­tions.

In the play and in life, Lauren uses “King of the Yees” to ex­plore Chi­nese Amer­i­can iden­tity as fil­tered through the mi­cro­cosm of Chi­na­town — a com­mu­nity she views as so­cially back­ward and derelict. Pur­pose­fully clue­less about Chi­nese cul­ture, she has mar­ried a non-Asian and is mov­ing for her hus­band’s job to Ger­many — as far from her eth­nic roots as she can get.

We soon re­al­ize Lauren’s meta-the­atri­cal take on her fam­ily his­tory is just a jump­ing-off point down the rab­bit hole.

Af­ter Larry re­ceives the crush­ing news that Le­land Yee, the politi­cian he has slav­ishly sup­ported for years, has been ar­rested on cor­rup­tion charges (as hap­pened in real life), he dis­ap­pears into the un­known and Lauren must make a fairy­tale-like jour­ney to find him. Along the way she meets quirky char­ac­ters, many of a su­per­nat­u­ral na­ture, who ul­ti­mately re­con­nect her with not only her father but with her her­itage.

The cast is rounded out by three ac­tors — Ram­mel Chan, Daniel Smith and An­gela Lin — who all play a va­ri­ety of roles. Odd­ity is the or­der of this pro­duc­tion, with di­rec­tor Joshua Ka­han Brody elic­it­ing deliciously over-the-top per­for­mances from his cast.

Brody’s funny, zingy stag­ing is very much in keep­ing with the tone of the play, which some­times ven­tures too far in the pur­suit of whimsy. Cases in point: when Lauren’s two per­form­ers, wait­ing back­stage for re­hearsal to re­sume, are in­ex­pli­ca­bly sucked into a kind of limbo, or when the gang­land char­ac­ter of Shrimp Boy drops into the ac­tion with a loud bang. The char­ac­ter, a real-life part of the Yee cor­rup­tion case, may be a great excuse for a ri­otous slow­mo­tion shootout, but dra­mat­i­cally, he’s a non se­quitur.

The show’s de­sign el­e­ments — Wil­liams Boles’ set, Heather Gil­bert’s light­ing, Mikhail Fik­sel’s sound and Mike Tu­taj’s pro­jec­tion de­sign — help to lend fo­cus to the hap­haz­ard­ness. Izumi In­aba’s cos­tumes, which range from the ev­ery­day to the com­i­cally lav­ish, are a stand­out.

A cheeky play­wright with a highly de­vel­oped sense of the im­prob­a­ble, Lauren Yee brings her fable full cir­cle with a touch­ing coda about fam­ily her­itage that may pro­voke unan­tic­i­pated tears. Al­though some­times undis­ci­plined, she boldly wields her dis­tinc­tively off­beat hu­mor to con­nect us to our bet­ter selves.

Pho­to­graphs by Craig Schwartz

RAM­MEL CHAN, from left, Stephe­nie Soohyun Park and Fran­cis Jue per­form in “King of the Yees” at the Kirk Douglas The­atre.

AN­GELA LIN, left, and Stephe­nie Soohyun Park share an awk­ward mo­ment.

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