Asian Acting: OC Register Review

Orange County Register Review: January 14, 2005

A versatile ‘Asian’ collection
At Rude Guerrilla, a slate of original one-act plays creates a satisfying evening of theater.

It’s a fortuitous coincidence that the current heightened consciousness regarding southern Asia will probably help attract patrons to the Empire Theater for Rude Guerrilla Theater Company’s world premiere production of "Asian Acting."

If that tragedy somehow causes Orange County theatergoers to sit up and take notice of Aurelio Locsin’s finely crafted evening of one-act plays, so much the better. Locsin, who describes himself as "mostly Filipino," followed several relatives into a writing career – technical writing. He discovered the world of theater in 1997, became an RGTC company member in 2000 and began dabbling in playwriting. "Asian Acting" is his first completed work, and as co-directed by six of the troupe’s company members, it is an auspicious debut.

The evening is bookended by stories about interracial relationships, each played for their light comedic value despite any underlying sociological message. The whimsical nature of "The Legend of the First Banana" is further underscored by the use of life-size puppets designed by Sean Cawelti. Operated by the actors who give them voice, they’re full-blown characters marked by Locsin’s deft writing in a fairy-tale-type story about Malaya (Jenny Lee), a Filipino maiden who volunteers to negotiate with Chinese merchants on behalf of her ailing father (Marc Macalintal). She winds up falling for Li (Stephen Oyoung), a young Chinese man, and he for her.
The sticking point is Father’s condemnation of their relationship based on Li’s non-Filipino lineage; underlying this is the gentle quality of a fable, narrated by two spectacularly silly monkeys (Peter Balgoyen, Yuki Matsuzaki). The playlet gains humor through its use of naughty X-rated material in a lightly comic vein, and the puppets are charming and ingenuous, given suitably expressive voices by their actors.

The show closes with "Marriage Monkey," based on a landmark 1933 California court case regarding a Filipino and a British woman who were denied a marriage license in Los Angeles on the basis of their racial differences. Locsin gives the tale a comedic spin, leaving the impression that the couple were more intent upon being wed than on breaking legal ground, and director Erika Tai gets sharply etched portrayals from Jon Apostol as the Asian man and Wendy Braun as both his lady love and as the fast-talking lady lawyer who helps them win the case.

Well-directed by Jody Reeves, "Midnight Maneuver" is a monologue wherein a Filipino mother (Naoko Okamoto) analyzes her complex thoughts and feelings toward her son, who has just confessed to her that he’s gay. The text has an ironic tone, and Okamoto plays her character with a confidential air and only the slightest comedic edge.

Reeves also gets the call, and delivers, on "Tongue Lashing," a far more brutal take on homophobia. Rico (Macalintal) mistakenly wanders into a gay bar and is hit on by Todd (Keith Bennett). Punishing Todd for his own error, Rico bounds the gay man to a chair, subjecting him to physical and emotional torture. The only playlet not directly inspired by Asian concepts or characters, "Tongue Lashing" is a harrowing experience driven by Macalintal’s rage, venom and frightening sadism. His Rico is a truly hateful figure.

On the flip side is "Mrs. M’s Tea," a lovely, deeply moving script given masterful direction by Sharyn Case and performances to match by Bennett as a young G.I. and Trina Mendiola as Mrs. M., the elderly Japanese-American woman who has known him since his childhood. Locsin ingeniously places these kindred spirits at odds when Bennett’s soldier is ordered to "escort" Mrs. M. to the internment camp at Manzanar. In the few minutes they take to share a cup of tea, we come to know a kindly but spirited old woman and a gentle young man who has been like her surrogate son. The play not only puts a human face on one of the United States’ most controversial episodes; it’s well-written, with credible dialogue and an ingeniously crafted payoff.

Interspersed with these five tales are two brief skits and an equally brief, nearly wordless tale. The latter is "Xian," something of a mystery until it clearly draws a clever analogy between the world of a pregnant woman battling masked assassins and that of the 21 st-century technicians assigned to combat computer viruses. The skits are "American Express," a ruthlessly efficient parody of credit-card commercials wherein an American tourist indulges his kinks via the Thai sex industry, and "How China Defused the Cuban Missile Crisis," which paints the 1962 incident as a fast-moving sendup of spy flicks, with an inventive explanation of the crisis’s resolution.
The inclusion of these sketches with the longer dramas and dramedies paints Locsin as a versatile, multigenre playwright, at least in the compact short-play format. The result is the debut of a dazzling mind whose talents are well-showcased in Rude Guerrilla’s production.