Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.

Survivors and Immigrants in Four Midsize Theaters

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Is summertime theatrical fare supposed to be light and fluffy?

Apparently not at two of our major theaters, where June is bustin’ out all over with dramas that examine the aftermath of the 1970s Cambodian genocide.

Year Zero at the Colony and Extraordinary Chambers at the Geffen are both worthwhile, yet they’re quite different. They make a fascinating matched set.

For the more finished and satisfying production of the two, I’d pick the West Coast premiere of Year Zero, which perhaps benefits from the fact that it’s already been through Chicago and New York productions. Extraordinary Chambers, in its first full production, still needs a little tweaking before it reaches the current state of Year Zero.

It also helps that David Rose’s staging of Year Zero is set in Long Beach and written by the Westwood-based Michael Golamco. It feels closer to home and therefore somewhat more immediate than Extraordinary Chambers, which is set completely in distant Cambodia yet is written by an American, David Wiener.

David Huynh, Christine Corpuz and Tim Chiou in YEAR ZERO.

As it happens, Long Beach has a large community of Cambodian Americans whose creators fled the harrowing conditions in their native land in the aftermath of the Pol Pot regime. Golamco isn’t one of them — he was born in the Philippines — but he obviously has given a lot of thought to the odysseys of recent Asian immigrants into American culture.

His story, set in 2003, focuses on young siblings, 16-year-old Vuthy (David Huynh, in a convincing display of teenage angst) and his 22-year-old sister Ra (Christine Corpuz). Following the death of their émigré shopkeeper mother, Ra has returned to Long Beach from her current home in Berkeley, where she has been studying for her med school entrance exam.

She has decided that her brother should now move in with one of their mother’s Long Beach friends in order to complete high school. But Vuthy — who wants to be a graphic novelist — would prefer to join his sister and her live-in boyfriend, the Chinese American Glenn (Eymard Cabling), in Berkeley, even though Vuthy thinks Glenn is way too preppy.

Then there is the boy next door — Han (Tim Chiou). He’s about Ra’s age, and he’s a big, strapping man/boy — affectionately referred to as “the world’s largest Cambodian” by the relatively puny and bespectacled Vuthy. On the one hand, Han is trouble — a member of the Cambodian American gang TRG who was recently released from prison. On the other hand, Han has a soft spot for both Ra and Vuthy. He was Ra’s secret boyfriend in high school, and he’s the only grown-up man with whom Vuthy can vent. Han spoke to their late mother about her experiences in Cambodia more than her children ever did. Chiou created this role at Chicago’s Victory Gardens and makes Han an indelible figure.

Another confidant for Vuthy is a skull that he apparently smuggled out of Cambodia after he went there with a group from the local temple. Now that his mother is gone, he uses the skull as a way to look out for his mother in the afterlife.

Golamco takes these ingredients and weaves them into a story that acknowledges the harsh dislocation of these immigrants but also respects their American opportunities. The title Year Zero, which was Pol Pot’s designation of how history was beginning anew with his rule, here also refers to how history begins anew for immigrants within the American cultural stew. The play is a moving examination of that perspective within the microcosm of these four young people.

I wonder if any Cambodian Americans from Long Beach will see Year Zero. Trent Steelman, executive director of the Colony, told me that an attempt was made to contact possible theatergoers through a Cambodian community center in Long Beach but that the Colony’s inability to provide buses for the drive between Long Beach and Burbank more or less ruled out any possibility that something would happen.

Too bad the Colony and International City Theatre in Long Beach couldn’t have arranged a co-production of Year Zero or a swap. They’re theaters of about the same size and professional standards. If Year Zero could have transferred to Long Beach after its Burbank run, perhaps ICT’s current production of the late John Henry Redwood’s The Old Settler — which also opened last weekend — could eventually have transferred to the Colony.

 

Karen Malina White and Veralyn Jones in THE OLD SETTLER

The Old Settler (also seen at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1998) is also about two siblings who have an immigrant — or at least a migrant — history. But these are middle-aged women who migrated from the South to the North and live in Harlem in 1943 — when racism was still unapologetically out in the open, at least in the South. The two plays are on the same bittersweet emotional spectrum, although The Old Settler is slightly more bitter, perhaps because its characters are considerably older. But its comedy is a little sharper as well. caryn desai’s staging, with Veralyn Jones and Karen Malina White as the two sisters who tangle over a much younger man (Ryan Vincent Anderson), captures the play’s Chekhovian melancholy.

Even if it’s too late to arrange this swap of the two productions, desai should get up to the Colony pronto to see Year Zero, if she hasn’t already done so. This is a play that Cambodian Americans in Long Beach should not miss simply because of transportation issues, and ICT could produce it better than any other company in Long Beach. I imagine that the rest of ICT’s audience would be touched by it as well.

Meanwhile, over in Westwood, the Geffen has unveiled Extraordinary Chambers, in which Carter, an American telecom executive (Mather Zickel) and his wife Mara (Marin Hinkle) go to Cambodia so that Carter can transact a business deal involving call centers — and so that they can get away from some of the heartbreak that they’ve experienced back home. By play’s end, they’ve transacted an entirely different kind of deal that directly reflects back on their personal crisis, thanks to the interference of their Cambodian “facilitator” (Francois Chau) and his poisonously embittered wife (Kimiko Gelman). They’ve also had to face the fact that some of the survivors of Cambodian genocide may have been culpable for some of the damage — and to wonder if they might have been capable of similar behavior.

Kimiko Gelman, Francois Chau in EXTRAORDINARY CHAMBERS

Wiener has devised a complicated plot, and it gets more complicated as it approaches the ending, with a final scene that contains an excess of exposition, without leaving enough time to digest it or even to make sure we understand it. Without revealing the particulars, I’ll just say that the climactic details make the ages set by Wiener in his script and the consequent casting of Pam MacKinnon’s staging somewhat problematic — a couple of the characters appear too young to have done what they supposedly did in the ’70s.

Nonetheless, the production effectively maintains an air of tantalizing mystery through most of its length, with sterling performances throughout. Although much of the focus is on the two Americans, which initially seems like a facile way to engage American theatergoers, it isn’t simply an empty gesture — Wiener briefly glances at America’s pre-Khmer Rouge role and Western-produced landmines that litter the Cambodian landscape. Also, a third Cambodian character, the facilitator’s servant Sopoan (Greg Watanabe) rises from apparent sidekick to what is arguably the most important role by play’s end, after a series of monologues that take us closer to the actual genocidal experience than any other part of the play — or than any of the imagery in Year Zero, for that matter.

Finally, as I’ve been making the rounds of some of our important midsize theaters in this column, I probably shouldn’t overlook the current Krunk Fu Battle Battle at East West Players. This is basically a b-boy dance spectacle, attached to a formulaic plot about a kid who migrates from Connecticut to the same Chinese American neighborhood in Brooklyn when his now-single mother grew up. There, he must face down the local b-boy bullies in order to establish his street cred. The musical primarily caters to Asian American teenagers who have never set foot in a theater, but some of these same teenagers would probably become much more involved in the struggles faced by 16-year-old Vuthy in Year Zero, if they knew about it.

Year Zero, Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank. Thu-Fri, 8 pm; Sat, 2 and 8 pm; Sun, 2 pm. Closes July 3. 818-558-7000. www.colonytheatre.org.

 

The Old Settler, International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun, 2 pm. Closes June 26. 562-436-4610. www.InternationalCityTheatre.org.

 

Extraordinary Chambers, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tues-Fri 8 pm; Sat 3 and 8 pm; Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes July 3. 310-208-5454/ www.GeffenPlayhouse.com.

 

Krunk Fu Battle Battle, East West Players, David Henry Hwant Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Wed-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. 213-625-7000. www.eastwestplayers.org.

Year Zero and Extraordinary Chambers photos by Michael Lamont.

The Old Settler photo by Carlos Delgado.