Put a 'Tiger' in your tank, LA Times
Why didn't the LA Times review the hilarious "Tiger Style!" or "Our Town" at South Coast Repertory? Plus thoughts on "Man of God," "Metamorphoses" and more.
“Tiger Style!” deserves the exclamation point in its title. Mike Lew’s satire is the funniest new play I’ve seen since theaters started re-opening last year, after vaccinations began.
At first, “Tiger” is a no-holds-barred satire of two Chinese-American young-adult siblings with acute anxiety, stirred up by other Americans who seem to bar no holds in their treatment of these exemplars of the so-called “model minority.” Then it also finds a lot of laughs as these third-generational siblings belatedly blame their problems on their parents, who used “tiger style” child-rearing techniques.
Finally, in a second act set in Shenzhen, these non-Chinese-speaking sibs seek liberation in the authoritarian state that is today’s China.
The play’s first act is set in Irvine, not far from South Coast Repertory, where its first production in Greater LA ends next weekend.
Ralph B. Peña’s staging is a triumph. The terrific cast is led by Jon Norman Schneider and Amy Kim Waschke as the siblings. Multiple supporting roles are played by trio of actors: Emily Kuroda, Derek Manson and, at the performance I saw, Daisuke Tsuji in a sensational understudy performance, filling in for Ryun Yu. The zippy design immediately rivets our attention — kudos to its creators Hana S. Kim, Tom Ontiveros, Fabian Obispo and Hyun Sook Kim.
At this point, some theater-minded Angelenos might well wonder, “Why haven’t we heard about this before now?” Well, you would have if you had read Christopher Smith’s excellent review in the Orange County Register. Or you might have found other comments on “Tiger Style!” on theater-specific websites, such as Tony Frankel’s review for Stage and Cinema.
But if, as is much likelier for Angelenos, you’re relying on the LA Times for timely, well-informed opinions of SCR productions, change your expectations. On the same day when the Register review of “Tiger Style!” appeared, Times theater critic Charles McNulty posted an interview from New York — about musical parodist Randy Rainbow’s published memoir.
Costa Mesa, where SCR operates, appears to have fallen off the edge of the theatrical map that the LA Times uses.
The Times not only ignored this latest version of “Tiger Style!,” which is set in the pre-COVID era of 2019, but also “Our Town,” the current occupant of the larger venue at SCR (not to mention, though I will, La Jolla Playhouse’s production of an earlier version of “Tiger Style!” in 2016). And last month the Times ran only a short feature article, not a review, of SCR’s most thoroughly bilingual production ever — Christine Quintana’s “Clean/Espejos” (which I wrote about here).
The last SCR production that McNulty reviewed was Pearl Cleage’s relatively familiar “What I Learned in Paris” in early March (as McNulty noted, its LA premiere was in 2014 at Burbank’s Colony Theatre).
So did something happen after that, leading someone at the Times to stop approving reviews at South Coast, generally considered the area’s second most prestigious theater company, behind only Center Theatre Group? Then again, perhaps even regular CTG reviews aren’t guaranteed — at least in the ever-slimmer print edition. When a CTG revival of Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky” opened at the Taper in April, McNulty’s review appeared online, but not in print.
Other recent examples of LAT’s conspicuous omissions of theater reviews abound. McNulty didn’t cover the LA premiere of the new musical “Tootsie,” a show that he had praised in New York three years ago. Of course the vast majority of LA Times readers are likelier to see “Tootsie” in Hollywood, not New York. But even if they remembered McNulty’s reaction to the Broadway production, they probably didn’t realize that the touring “Tootsie” at the Dolby Theatre had a non-Equity cast, which conceivably might have altered McNulty’s opinion somewhat.
Last February McNulty reviewed a revival of Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind” at the Old Globe in San Diego, hailing it as “the best new play I’ve seen in ages” even though it was first produced in 1955. The headline declared that “the theater world is finally ready to experience it.” But McNulty apparently wasn’t ready to experience it in 2017, when the Times failed to review a Theatricum Botanicum production of the same play, in Topanga — located within Los Angeles County, much closer than San Diego. The Theatricum production received at least seven reviews in smaller LA-based publications, including one in LA’s second-place general-interest newspaper, the Daily News.
Of course the problem isn’t necessarily McNulty. The Times apparently has stopped using a team of free-lance critics who formerly reviewed many productions, especially in smaller and midsize theaters, in previous years. The one non-McNulty-written theater review that made it into the Times print edition so far this year — Mary McNamara’s commentary on “Ann” at Pasadena Playhouse — was part of her regular, non-theater-specific column.
Strangely enough, McNulty did review “Tiger Style!” playwright Mike Lew’s “Teenage Dick,” last February. But it was a streaming filmed version of a co-production at Huntington Theatre in Boston, presented here online by Pasadena Playhouse, which had previously planned to stage a live “Teenage Dick” in February until renewed COVID fears derailed it. McNulty’s review was mostly positive, so it’s reasonable to believe that McNulty would have been open to reviewing SCR’s live “Tiger Style!”
I understand the financial balancing act faced by newspapers, still negotiating the print/digital boundary. I understand that people who buy theater tickets are often older than the new generation that the Times is trying so hard to attract — and perhaps they’re also more likely to still read the print edition.
Still, “Tiger Style!” isn’t primarily about old people. More important, this brilliant theatrical romp might be of particular interest to the roughly 700,000 Chinese-Americans in Greater LA — the country’s second largest concentration.
Need I mention that the owner of the Times, Patrick Soon-Shiong, is a Chinese-South African-American — who, gasp, is almost as old as I am?
(Full disclosure: I was once one of several Times free-lance theater reviewers before I was employed by the Times for 16 years as the staff theater reporter.)
And what about SCR’s ‘Our Town’?
Meanwhile, next door to “Tiger Style!” is the umpteenth revival of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” with SCR veteran Hal Landon Jr. as the Stage Manager.
In my last column I complained that Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — another famous American playwright’s most famous play — didn’t have anything new to say in its 60th year. Consequently I was exasperated when this one-location realistic play, which takes place over the course of one night, lasted longer than three hours in its recent Geffen Playhouse revival.
Only since then did I learn that Albee was one of the most outspoken advocates of “Our Town” as “probably the finest play ever written by an American.” Huh? “Our Town” is almost diametrically on the other end of the structural and stylistic spectrum from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Watching Beth Lopes’ revival at SCR, I could see why Wilder’s play holds up much better in its 84th year than Albee’s does in its 60th. Its subjects are much more universal, and its less literal style is much more flexible. For years “Our Town” has accommodated the casting of non-white actors (as it does at South Coast), even though it’s ostensibly set in a small New Hampshire town that surely would have been almost entirely white in a more realism-bound play.
On the other hand, perhaps because of recent troubles in the news, I’ve also begun to wonder if Grover’s Corners, N.H. is too small and remote to feel completely relevant these days, when the latest small town we’ve learned about is Uvalde, Texas.
“Our Town” certainly takes note of some of life’s inequities and tragedies and the inevitability of death. In my high-school’s production of “Our Town,” I played the role of Simon Stimson, the town’s unhappiest inhabitant (played at SCR by Brad Culver). Perhaps Simon should have become a theater critic instead of a church choirmaster?
But “Our Town” arrived in 1938, before World War II, the death camps, Hiroshima. And now we’re receiving daily bulletins about the agonies of a war that is the worst conflict in Europe since World War II.
Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” opened in 1942, when the war was raging, and it’s considerably darker and more diverse in its catalog of potential worldwide cataclysms. It encompasses so much that it’s even possible to view it as an early portent of climate change, as Ellen Geer did in a Theatricum Botanicum revival in 2019.
Unfortunately, our own “town,” in the broadest sense, seems a little closer to “The Skin of Our Teeth” than to “Our Town” these days.
The second coming of ‘Man of God’
Speaking of the Geffen, home of the recent “Virginia Woolf?”, it’s currently producing “Man of God,” which has a superficial resemblance to “Tiger Style!” Both plays depict Asian-Americans making new discoveries about themselves and each other on a trip to Asia. But in “Man of God,” the travelers are Korean-Americans, not Chinese-Americans, and they travel to Thailand, not China. They’re also considerably younger and more ostensibly Christian than the characters in “Tiger.”
Anna Ouyang Moench’s play received a premiere from downtown LA’s East West Players in 2019, about a year before COVID arrived. The Geffen version had been scheduled to open in 2020 when it was derailed by the pandemic, but it has now been reconstituted, directed by Maggie Burrows, who recently staged the Geffen’s “Trayf,” a play about ostensibly ultra-religious young Orthodox Jewish men.
“Man of God” is mistitled. It’s about the teenage girls, not the pastor who brought them to Thailand for…what, exactly? Evangelizing? Then why do they discover a hidden camera in their hotel bathroom? The girls suspect that the pastor placed it there and imagine fantasies of how they might react.
The ending is more subtle. In his mostly favorable review of the East West production, McNulty wrote that the ending felt “unfinished,” and it still conveys that sensation. In 2022, it’s hard to believe that the crisis has ended and won’t be revived when the girls return home. Will there be a sequel?
The point of the ending seems to be that the girls, at least for now, reflexively repress their true feelings about this — as opposed to the young adults in “Tiger Style!,” who are emphatically rejecting their previous repression. Which is more dramatically exciting? “Tiger Style!”
In case you’re wondering, you probably won’t see a Times review of the Geffen’s “Man of God”, even though it’s completely separate from the production that the Times reviewed at East West.
A matinee at the pool — no sun block required
“Our Town” isn’t the only classic that’s currently in our town — er, Greater LA.
The most unusual and interesting “classical” production right now is A Noise Within’s revival in Pasadena of “Metamorphoses,” a play that was first produced under that title in 1998. Is that too recent for it to count as a classic? Well, it’s based on much older tales by Ovid, the ancient Roman poet who was born in the BCE period and died in the CE. It’s such a golden experience that it might be produced a lot more often — if only it didn’t require a pool of water on the stage. But then it wouldn’t be nearly as engaging.
I hadn’t seen it since CTG staged it at the Mark Taper Forum in 2000. So those who are intrigued by the idea of a spa within a theatrical space should seize this oppiortunity to see it.
Many theater companies probably decide that an onstage pool is either too much of a hassle — or, in times of drought, that people might think they’re wasting water. I’m not aware of the specific water conservation requirements in Pasadena; it’s not something theater critics usually have to consider.
However, Mary Zimmerman’s aquatic setting for her collection of dramatized tales about ancient gods and their relations with humans certainly evokes thoughts about about how essential and transformative, fun and funny, water can be. Perhaps that will in turn help us try harder to conserve it?
Julia Rodriguez Elliott directs nine actors in 85 brief roles drawn from six myths, but modern touches are plentiful, demonstrating how all of this relates to our contemporary lives much better than “Hadestown” did with similar source material.
As far as the other primary classical productions in our town right now, John Gould Rubin’s attempt to make waves with a one-set “King Lear” at the Wallis in Beverly Hills is unfortunately a tragedy in more ways than one — except perhaps for the energy of Joe Morton’s performance in the title role. Rubin’s worst idea was to cast one actor as both Cordelia and the Fool — and then never to change that actor’s one ugly costume. And while the restrained use of mobile phones adds a touch of currency to A Noise Within’s “Metamorphoses,” Rubin takes this idea to its most tiresome extreme, all within the misbegotten context of trying (but failing) to make the production in-the-round.
On the other hand, director Elizabeth Swain’s interpretation of “Hamlet” at Antaeus Theatre is too cautious. It needs a livelier sense of invention (and perhaps a bigger budget?), especially in its scenic design, which consists of one abstract, all-purpose backdrop. As at the Wallis, the actor in the title role, Ramón de Ocampo, is something of a spark plug, but the spark never creates much of a fire.
By the way, I generally agree with most of McNulty’s Times reviews of both “King Lear” and “Hamlet.” “Metamorphoses” at A Noise Within received a Times feature article focusing on the pool, but — so far — no Times review.
‘Sleep With the Angels,’ ‘Beloved’
I’m grateful that Latino Theater Company has finally re-awakened after COVID with a full production, but I was disappointed by Evelina Fernández’s “Sleep with the Angels,” at Los Angeles Theatre Center, especially considering that I liked most of Fernández’s previous plays.
This one is about a busy Latina attorney who hires a previously unknown (and, she later realizes, undocumented) Mexican immigrant, in order to provide care for her daughter and son — the latter of whom is tentatively coming out of the closet. The attorney soon begins to wonder if the caregiver has a pipeline to magical-realistic superpowers.
In an interview, director José Luis Valenzuela said that although the character of the all-knowing newcomer (Esperanza América) initially seems like Mary Poppins, the play eventually dives deeper. But I didn’t sense that transition. Perhaps the frequent musical interludes (América has a wonderfully theatrical voice) and the oddly luxurious scenic design discourage that transformation. The play has a feel-good quality that led me to wonder whether the company is over-compensating for the long COVID isolation by trying to make the theater cozy again instead of challenging.
I was also perplexed by the central character in Arthur Holden’s “Beloved” at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood — because he’s not even on stage. The play consists of three scenes in which a teenager’s fractious parents discuss an infraction by their son, as reported to them by his private school, and its aftermath. First they’re seen with a guidance counselor, then with a psychologist as the situation grows more serious, then with an attorney (all three of whom are played by the same actress), after the parents themselves are divorced.
When I first heard of this premise, within the context of recent shootings by unhinged 18-year-old males, I immediately wondered if this play would be all too relevant to those incidents. But no, the infraction isn’t a mass murder. Apparently someone with the production considers the nature of the offense to be a spoiler, so I won‘t say exactly what it is.
Still, it’s difficult to get a grasp on it, or care much about it, when the boy himself — and another key character who is mentioned from afar, later in the narrative — are not on the stage at all.