Lauren Yee’s wonderfully self-conscious play, King of the Yees, demolishes the stage convention of the fourth wall, utterly obliterates it. Shortly after the beginning of the show, Larry Yee (the irrepressible, effervescent Francis Jue) charges in from house left carrying signs for Leland Yee’s campaign for California state senator. Larry Yee’s avocation is his unwavering support for the politician, Leland Yee, primarily because he is a Yee. For twenty years, he has roamed the streets of San Francisco putting up signs for his man and his various political campaigns. It is his raison d’etre.
Larry’s entrance totally disrupts a rehearsal for Lauren’s new play, King of the Yees. The house lights come up, individuals in the audience are addressed, water bottles get handed out, and a couple of theatre-goers are brought down on stage. For various reasons and with great improvisational spontaneity, the cast roams into the house, up and down the aisles, and even fumbles across a row of seats, as the audience grows giddy with laughter.
The play eventually settles down and tells the story of a playwright named Lauren Yee (Stephenie Soohyun Park), a Yale graduate come home to San Francisco’s Chinatown from New York for her father’s sixtieth birthday. It is the most important birthday for a person of Chinese ancestry, marking the completion of one full cycle of life, and a cause for celebration. Lauren’s father, a newly retired phone company employee, is also the head of the Yee Fung Toy family association, a faltering organization over one-hundred-and-fifty-years old. Most of the play’s action occurs just downstage of a pair of impressive, ancient red doors that are the entrance to the venerable institution.
At its root, King of the Yees is the story of a young woman alienated from her ethnic heritage, who has one last chance to come to an understanding of her father before setting off for Europe with her not-Chinese husband. The story is told with the help of three protean actors who take on multiple roles. Actor One (Daniel Smith) and Actor Two (Angela Lin) play the two actors rehearsing Ms. Yee’s play, while Actor Three (Rammel Chan), an ordinary, inoffensive young man dragooned seemingly at random from the audience, comes down to play a number of other roles. With the playwright’s extraordinary perception and with great humor, Actors One and Two expound on the exigencies of being Asian in show business. The three players also become various citizens of Chinatown, including a chiropractor, cum herbalist, cum wise man with a weird beard, shop owners, and others. Actor One gives an intense representation of the notorious tong leader, Shrimp Boy. Together the three pliable actors lampoon the ancient leaders of the Lum organization who launch Lauren on a classic quest to find her father who has gone missing after a sad conversation with his daughter.
With a cast of superb players expertly directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, King of the Yees is marvelously entertaining. The deceptively sparse scenic design by William Boles consists of the grand, red doors mentioned above, two metal folding chairs, and two red pipes, one vertical and one horizontal that cross neatly above the floor on stage right giving a certain sense of order. As the show hurtles into a chaotic climax, what seemed fixed is not. Watch those pipes. Lighting designer Heather Gilbert, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, and projections designer Mike Tutaj punctuate the action with some rather explosive effects. Costumes by Izumi Inaba support character and action. If you go, and I urge you all to run to see the show before it is gone, keep a watch on that set of red doors, and don’t blink when a character shows up with a rigid mask.
King of the Yees, a world premiere production by Center Theatre Group in association with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, runs through August 6 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City.