Chinatown, My Chinatown
The Year of the Dragon
Written by Frank Chin
Directed by Michael Shin
In the Lowell House JCR
YOU MAY NOT believe it, but horoscopes can be accurate. When I went to eat at a Chinese restaurant before going to see Frank Chin's play The Year of the Dragon, I never thought the horoscope on the placemat would have anything to do with the play. But I was wrong. "Full of vitality and enthusiasm," it read, "the Dragon is a popular individual even with the reputation of being a `big mouth' at times."
That's just what Chin's play is all about--vital characters who say what they ought to keep to themselves, characters full of sound and fury, but lacking in sense.
The Year of the Dragon chronicles the decay of a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco's Chinatown. The play could be an interesting look at one of America's ghetto communities, but it turns out to be another recounting of the death of the American dream, combined with elements from Harold Pinter's play The Homecoming.
As the play opens, Mattie ("Sis") Eng (Janet Choi) returns to her home after 14 years of absence while on a promotional tour for her new Mama Fu Fu's chinese cookbook. To her dismay, one of her brothers is wasting his time running "Chinatown Tour'n'Travoo" tours, while the other has turned into a gangster. Her father (Carlton Sagara), on the verge of death after years of illness, has finally brought his first wife "China Mama" (Lena Chen) over to the United States. She is not enthusiastically received by number two wife or the children. To add to the chaos, "Sis" brings home a white husband.
In director Michael Shin's production, set and lighting effects are minimal (and ill-handled), and Shin focuses on his actors instead of their surroundings. This is probably a wise decision given the limitations of the Lowell House Junior Common Room. Shin does wonders with costumes. He has turned three teenagers into very convincing looking ma, pa, and China Mama, using hairstyle and clothing to age the young faces.
The acting in Dragon runs the gamut. The character of Mattie is handled adeptly. Though she sometimes stumbles on lines and can be soppy at emotional moments, Choi really conveys the portrait of the girl who's made it, a glitzy woman who turns her cultural heritage to profit. Mattie's brother Johnny (Yongjin Im) has fabulous lines like "Cantonese sweet 'n' sour goes straight to your scrotum, but Im is at times overly theatrical. And his accent does not exactly match those of the characters of his brother Johnny or his parents.
But the best of the bunch are the old people. As Mama, Chungjoon Lee struts across the stage as a matriarch, conversing cutely with her family. And Sagara's ingenious accent and ability to dotter make the character of the grumpy old Chinatown boss. Chen in the silent role of China Mama manages to make her presence felt at the play's tensest moments.
It is too bad that for the only Caucasian character in the play Shin chose Jeff Karpel, who can hardly keep a straight face, cannot decide whether to deliver his lines to the audience or the other characters and has no real stage presence.
Dragon is a challenging play, but it is too long to retain rapt audience attention, and it does demand constant alertness to decipher dialect. But Sinophiles and drama enthusiasts will appreciate this spicy story of Chinatown challenge.