By Lloyd Suh; Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Produced by National Asian American Theatre Company
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 11.21.15
Walker Space, 46 Walker Street
by Lee Kinney on 11.18.15
Jeff Biehl in Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito.
BOTTOM LINE: Murder-mystery-metatheater at its finest.
To those uninitiated in the Charlie Chan oeuvre, Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery will serve as both a rocket-speed education in and a bombastic deconstruction of the film hero.
Earl Derr Biggers created fictional Honolulu Police detective Charlie Chan in the early 20th century, a detective who shares a name with Suh’s protagonist. Frank (born Charles Francis Chan, played feverishly by Jeffrey Omura) is a politically charged Berkley student in the 1960s, passionately at odds with his cultural heritage and anxiously trying to avoid being drafted to a brutal war in Vietnam. He has big feelings about his father, who became famous as a minstrel performer, titillating the American public with stereotype-laden racial humor. He has big feelings about his own identity and his place in righting the alienation and oppression of Asians in America. And he has a big talking monkey visiting him in vivid hallucinations (played brilliantly by Orville Mendoza in an excellent Loren Shaw costume).
But the play opens on an incongruous scene, saturated with the murder mystery tropes of thunder and lightning punctuations scored by dramatic violin swells (the sound is dexterously crafted by Jeremy S. Bloom). A man is found dead and detective Arthur Hastings (another pop culture import: the Watson to Hercule Poirot’s Sherlock) is called in to investigate. His initial bumbling examination is interrupted by a surprise visit from Charlie Chan himself, played with water-tight panache by yellow-faced Jeff Biehl, who declares the victim is….*THUNDER CRASH*… his father (!).
As the two worlds trade scenes, Frank reveals his master revolutionary plot to up-end generations of cultural misappropriation: he’ll write a play. As it turns out, the unfolding Charlie Chan murder mystery is this very play. Frank, his wife, and a motley crew of friends devise the piece over months, crafting a loose plot wherein we discover Earl Biggers is the victim in question, and all the players in their various representations of Asian and American culture are suspects.
Under bold direction by Drama Desk Award-winner Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, the theatricality and metatheatricality are richly rendered, bleeding the two worlds together effortlessly, and handling an at times densely polemic script with hilarious grace. Iskandar is supported by a design team who equally embrace the height of Suh’s world, with Olivia Sebesky’s clever projections creating dynamic visual effects (including several poignant moments of video elegantly superimposed over live performance), and Seth Reiser’s understated lighting sculpting the challenging Walker Space theater with striking specificity.
Suh’s take on the delicate matter of race relations in the ever-multiplying cultural mosaic of this country achieves the ambitious goal of presenting heavy political issues in an altogether delightful and personal manner. Its hard-hitting political incorrectness seems the completely correct course for political theater to take to both remain relevant and invite a meaningful discussion of difficult, and essential, material.
(Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery plays at Walker Space, 46 Walker Street, through November 21, 2015. The show runs 2 hours, 30 minutes with an intermission. Performance are Mondays through Fridays at 7; and Saturdays at 2 and 7. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased online at www.naatco.org or by calling 866.811.4111. For more information visit www.naatco.org).
Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery is written by Lloyd Suh with music by Alan Schmuckler. It is directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Set Design is by Jason Sherwood. Lighting Design is by Seth Reiser. Costume Design is by Loren Shaw. Sound Design is by Jeremy S. Bloom. Projection Design is by Olivia Sebesky. Props Supervisor is by Samantha Shoffner. Fight Choreography is by Qui Nguyen. Music Direction is by Alan Schmuckler. Dramaturgy is by Kimber Lee. Production Stage Manager isAndrea Jess Berkey.
The cast is Jeff Biehl, Jennifer Ikeda, Peter Kim, Orville Mendoza, KK Moggie, and Jeffrey Omura.