City Paper is not for tourists
Disembodied voices, giggles, and a slap. The opening moments of Studio 2ndStage’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven sound like a rehearsal: “When you slap her, don’t stop” “…slap…slap…”…“come back to your composure as quick as you can.” Then rice-paper screens part to reveal a TV image of a crying woman being slapped across the face, recovering, and being slapped again and again. Provocative? Certainly, especially for a satirical evening by experimental playwright Young Jean Lee that will mostly court laughter as it explodes Asian stereotypes and does its level best for far too long a running time to keep Studio’s largely white audience off-balance. Smiles are clearly the aim when chirpy Jiehae Park addresses the audience standup-style to ask a politically incorrect question: “Have you ever noticed how most Asian-American are brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents?” By the time she gets to a line about how some white guys “seem to like that retarded quality,” the audience is once again comfortable with the evening’s tone. But what to make of the three shrieking women (Patricia Penn, Sue Jin Song, and Youngsun Cho) in shapeless traditional gowns that make them look a bit like giant cowbells, who pummel, smack, and kick Park into submission, then drag her from the stage so they can dance along to Korean music videos and play rock/paper/scissors? Or of the white couple (Rachel Holt and Brandon McCoy) who emerge from the audience to argue about alcoholism, sex, and health insurance on the way to the declaration, “You know what’s awesome? Being white.” Ethnic-identity plays often follow a reassuring pattern to a reassuring conclusion: domestic, social, or internal conflict resolved in a manner establishing both the special virtues of the ethnicity in question, and the universality of human experience. Dragons doesn’t seem interested in most of that, preferring to leave patrons unsettled, and though it occasionally becomes enervating in the process, it mostly achieves that aim. Natsu Onoda Power’s staging makes inventive use of Studio’s black box, bringing the audience in through a bamboo-and-lotus-blossom-lined hallway decorated with paper lanterns, then treating it to everything from ceremonial dragon dances to a blood-soaked recap of Korean splatter-film climaxes (the latter cleverly rendered by Joyce Liao’s lighting). Also: jokes about “l”-”r” pronunciation difficulties (”Oh, Dong-Dong, how we have wronged for you.”), a recipe for mudfish-stuffed tofu you probably won’t want to try in your kitchen, a bit of shadow-puppet porn, and an audience sing-along of “Amazing Grace” in Korean.