Nightmare or revelation? It’s Cambodian Rock Band, and it rocks

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ABOVE: The cast of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Joseph Ngo, Abraham Kim, Geena Quintos and Moses Villarama. BELOW: Ngo and Francis Jue. Photos by Lynn Lane/Berkeley Rep

Cambodian Rock Band is such a unique show that it’s hard to describe. It’s the most uplifting story about human atrocities you can imagine. You could say it’s a play with music, but the music – performed live by the cast – is such an integral part of the story (and the emotion of it all), that you could call it a concert with play. There’s genocide and the uplift of great live music.

Whatever it is, it’s powerful and moving and a joy (and, truth be told, a terror) to behold on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. The exuberant cast keeps up with every tonal shift, time shift and musical cue in playwright Lauren Yee’s compelling story, and the experience slams the audience this way and that in the best possible way.

The roots of Cambodian Rock Band go back to 2016 and to Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor new works program. From there, the show has been produced in a lot of places – Oregon Shakespeare Festival, South Coast Rep, off Broadway to name a few – and it’s that off-Broadway production from the Signature Theatre that is making the rounds of major regional theaters, including Berkeley Rep.

Director Chay Yew dexterously blends all the disparate elements of Yee’s script into something wholly original. The show begins as a rock concert circa 1975 in Phnom Penh. The five-piece band is Cyclos, and they’re caught up in the excitement of recording their first album. Then everything changes. The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot comes to power, launching a horrifying reign that ultimately led to the death of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. Amid the totalitarian terror, education, music and art were outlawed, and those who practiced such dangerous trades were systematically dispatched.

From the opening concert, we bounce to Phnom Penh in 2008 and the first war crimes trial related to the Pol Pot regime. A young Cambodian-American woman, Neary (Geena Quintos) is part of the legal team bringing Commrade Duch to justice after his stint as director of the infamous S-21 prison, which is estimated to have slaughtered 20,000 people. When the prison was liberated in 1979, only seven people appeared to have survived. But, as Neary discovers, there is a possible eighth survivor, and she needs to locate him so he can testify.

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Just as her trial is about to begin, Neary’s father, Chum (Joe Ngo) shows up and wants to bring her back to the U.S. He fled the Khmer regime and doesn’t want his daughter mired in all that horror from 30 years before. But she is insistent, and the father-daughter struggle will delve into some tangled family history that is played out in flashbacks.

To say that Ngo as Chum is extraordinary really isn’t saying enough. He is called upon to sing and play guitar in the band, play the young Chum navigating the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge and play the older Chum, a husband and father and American who would rather not re-live his Cambodian past. By turns funny, sympathetic and devastatingly dramatic, Ngo brings an astonishing level of energy and depth to his character’s remarkable journey.

Quintos as Neary is a defiant but sympathetic daughter following her own quest for justice, but she’s also a powerhouse singer in the band. Moses Villarama plays characters in both of the play’s eras and plucks a mean bass, while Abraham Kim wallops the drums (and some smaller roles) and Jane Lui tackles the keys (and prisoners at S-21).

Former Bay Area resident (but still Bay Area favorite) Francis Jue interrupts the opening concert to act as a sort of host for the evening and to guide us back and forth in time until he becomes a major player in the drama. Nobody can convey more charm or more menace than Jue, who is truly masterful in this show. And not for nothing, he plays a mean cowbell.

Unlike something like Life Is Beautiful the warmhearted(?) Roberto Benigni comedy(?) about the Holocaust, Cambodian Rock Band is not sappy or easy. Yee isn’t softening Pol Pot’s genocide in any way. The use of music – something the Khmer Rouge considered so dangerous they banned it – and specifically rock music (originals by the band Dengue Fever plus some vintage Cambodian surf songs and other period tunes) emphasizes the raging glory of humanity – and the human connection that art creates – even in the face of humanity at its very worst. An evening that begins as a concert ends as a transcendent event that feels enormous and full of hope.

Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band continues through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 2 1/2 hours (including a 15-minute intermission). Tickets are $21-$122 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Yay for Yee! Lauren Yee wins the Glickman Award

San Francisco native Lauren Yee has won the 2015 Glickman Award for the best play to have its world premiere in the Bay Area. She won for in a word, a drama about the aftermath of a child gone missing, which was produced as part of the “Sandbox Series” at San Francisco Playhouse. The award comes with a $4,000 check for the playwright and a certificate of recognition to the producing theater.

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In an interesting and unusual twist, Yee was in competition for the award with…herself. Yee’s Hookman, produced by Encore Theatre Company, was also a finalist, along with Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters by Echo Brown and produced by The Marsh.

Read an excerpt of in a word here.

The Glickman Award, which will be presented at the Theatre Bay Area conference, is awarded annually by a committee comprising Bay Area critics. This year’s committee included Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Avila of, Karen D’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group, Chad Jones of and Sam Hurwitt of the Idiolect and the Marin Independent Journal.

Here’s a complete list of Glickman Award winners (the award is made in the year following the show’s premiere):

2015 The House that will not Stand, Marcus Gardley (Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
2014 Ideation, Aaron Loeb (San Francisco Playhouse)
2013 The Hundred Flowers Project, Christopher Chen (Crowded Fire/Playwrights Foundation)
2012 The North Pool, Rajiv Joseph (TheatreWorks)
2011 Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro (Magic)
2010 In the Next Room, Sarah Ruhl (Berkeley Rep)
2009 Beowulf, Jason Craig (Shotgun Players)
2008 Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle (Marsh)
2007 Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Killing My Lobster)
2006 The People’s Temple, Leigh Fondakowski et al (Berkeley Rep)
2005 Dog Act, Liz Duffy Adams (Shotgun)
2004 Soul of a Whore, Denis Johnson (Campo Santo)
2003 Five Flights, Adam Bock (Encore)
2002 Dominant Looking Males, Brighde Mullins (Thick Description)
2001 Everything’s Ducky, Bill Russell & Jeffrey Hatcher (TheatreWorks)
2000 The Trail of Her Inner Thigh, Erin Cressida Wilson (Campo Santo)
1999 Combat!, John Fisher (Rhino)
1998 Civil Sex, Brian Freeman (Marsh)
1997 Hurricane/Mauvais Temps, Anne Galjour (Berkeley Rep)
1996 Medea, the Musical, John Fisher (Sassy Mouth)
1995 Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Charlie Varon (Marsh)
1994 Santos & Santos, Octavio Solis (Thick Description)
1993 Heroes and Saints, Cherrie Moraga (Brava)
1992 Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner (Eureka)
1991 Political Wife, Bill Talen (Life on the Water)
1990 Pick Up Ax, Anthony Clarvoe (Eureka)
1989 Yankee Dawg You Die, Philip Kan Gotanda (Berkeley Rep)
1988 Webster Street Blues, Warren Kubota (Asian American)
1987 Life of the Party, Doug Holsclaw (Rhino)
1986 Deer Rose, Tony Pelligrino (Theatre on the Square)
1985 The Couch, Lynne Kaufman (Magic)
1984 Private Scenes, Joel Homer (Magic)

Bay Area theater 2015: some favorites

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One of the best things about the year-end exercise to round up favorite theatergoing memories of the preceding year is that it can be such a powerful reminder of how much good theater we have in the Bay Area and how many really extraordinary theater artists we have working here. Another element jumps out at me this year and that is how, in addition to great homegrown work, our area also attracts some of the best theater artists from around the world to come and share their work (at the behest of savvy local producers, of course).

So here are some thoughts on memorable work I saw this year – and I will add as a caveat, I didn’t see as much as I should have (or as much as I used to for that matter), and I must express some pride that as we head into 2016, this old Theater Dogs blog will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and that makes me mighty proud. This is a labor of love, and I want it to be that first and foremost, a way of celebrating and promoting the riches we have here.

• The Curran Theatre is reborn. For me, the theater event of the year was actually a series of events comprising Curran Under Construction, a reintroduction of the fabled theater by its owner, Carole Shorenstein Hays not simply as a stop for touring shows but as an important player in the theatrical culture of the city. While the theater undergoes renovation in its lobby and restrooms, Hays invited audiences to enter through the stage door and sit on stage to experience one after another shows of extraordinary power and diversity. She began with The Event, a horrifyingly relevant exploration of mass violence, grief and understanding, and moved on to the wildly different but equally thrilling The Object Lesson with Geoff Sobelle blending materialism and memories in a magical way. Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet offered whisky, haunting music and one of the year’s best, most immersive stage experiences. Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce brought a favorite son back to San Francisco, and Stew and Heidi Rodewald put their own rock-blues spin on James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son. Every event at the Curran, including the speaker series hosted by the Curran’s resident literary star, Kevin Sessums, has been glorious and fascinating and involving. What more could you want from theater? (read the original posts here)

• Central Market gets a jewel of a theater in ACT’s The Strand. The Curran wasn’t the only re-birth this year. American Conservatory Theater spent a whole lot of time, money and effort bringing some class to the evolving Central Market area. The new Strand Theater is spectacular and should prove to be a key component in the cultural life of San Francisco. (read the original post here)

• Just Theater blows us away. Again. After A Maze last year, Just Theater became a company I wanted to pay attention to, and boy did that attention pay off. With Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 the company emerged as a producer of provocative, impactful work that should attract as big an audience as possible. This play within a play (within a rehearsal) tackled race, history and personal drama in ways that felt mind bending and heart racing.(read the original post here)

• We got to see Angela Lansbury live on stage. Even if she had just stood on stage and waved, that would have been something, but no, Dame Angela, the legend herself, gave a true and truly funny performance as Madame Arcati in the Broadway touring production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit as part of the SHN season. At 89, she defied any signs of age and offered pure magic. Extraordinary. (read the original post here)

Hookman splatters expectations. Playwright Lauren Yee offered abundant surprises in this “existential slasher comedy,” which is the best possible description of this electric one-act play from Encore Theatre. (read the original post here)

• Tuneful time travel in Triangle. The most heartfelt new musical I saw this year was Triangle at TheatreWorks, a time-twisting tale involving tragedy and romance. Curtis Moore and Thomas Mizer have crafted a smart, melodious show that feels original and scaled exactly right (the cast of six feels much bigger, as do the emotions). (read the original post here)

• There’s still life left in Scrooge after all. There’s absolutely no reason that the new musical Scrooge in Love should not become a holiday perennial. Creators Kellen Blair, Larry Grossman and Duane Poole have crafted an utterly charming musical sequel to A Christmas Carol with songs you actually want to hear and characters you root for. Of course having Jason Graae as Scrooge is a big Christmas bonus, so kudos to all at 42nd Street Moon for breaking away from the classic or forgotten musicals and presenting something fresh and fantastic. (read the original post here)

• Alice Munro should love Word for Word. There’s no better theater company than Word for Word and no better writer than Alice Munro, so…mic drop. This was sublime from beginning to end as director Joel Mullenix and a cast that included the wondrous Jeri Lynn Cohen, Susan Harloe and Howard Swain brought two Munro stories to life, one from 1968, one from 2012. There was humor, heart and exquisite writing. (read the original post here)

• Cathleen Riddley lays it bare in Tree. Riddley can always be counted on for a strong performance, but in this powerful Julie Hébert family drama at San Francisco Playhouse she was riveting and heartbreaking as an older woman losing touch with herself and her family. (read the original post here)

• And then the drama comes flooding in. My favorite set of the year was G.W. Skip Mercier’s design for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Water played a big part in the design of a house in marshy Louisiana territory where the forks of the Mississippi meet. There was a storm, a leaky roof and then a deluge of biblical proportions. And boy was it fun to watch. (read the original post here)

• Hypocrites pummel Pirates perfectly. Probably the most fun you could have in a theater (and not mind getting beaned by a beach ball) was Chicago troupe The Hypocrites’ wild and wonderful take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Berkeley Rep had the smarts to introduce the Bay Area to this smart, enterprising company, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of their inventive, energetic take on interactive theater. (read the original post here)

Hooked from the start on Yee’s Hookman

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Sarah Matthes (left) is Jess and Taylor Jones is Lexi in Lauren Yee’s Hookman, described as an “existential slasher comedy.” The Encore Theatre Company production continues through May 30 at Z Below. Below: Back in her Connecticut dorm room, Lexi encounters the energetic Chloe (Aily Roper). Photos by James Faerron

Leave it playwright Lauren Yee to bring clear definition to the sub-genre “existential slasher comedy.” That’s exactly what her Hookman is, a fascinating world-premiere play from Encore Theatre Company that draws laughs from teen speak and the usual first year of college tropes but blends in a rich and disturbing examination of loss, responsibility, maturity and what it is to be a young woman in the 21st century.

Is the man with the hook a real serial killer? Did a drunk driver really subvert Lexi’s life and kill her best friend? Is everyone on campus really consumed by demonic seizures and blood lust? Those are some of the questions plaguing Lexi (Taylor Jones), a college freshman whose first return home to California for break didn’t go as planned. She and bestie Jess (Sarah Matthes) did their usual thing: late-night run to In-n-Out then a midnight movie, but amid their friendly car chatter (set designer James Faerron delivers a simple but effective onstage car), there emerges some tension and the kind of growing pains that come from high school friends moving on to different lives on different coasts.

Then tragedy strikes, and when Lexi gets back to school on the East Coast, life is decidedly different and more sinister. Her energetic but enigmatic roommate, Yoonji (Katharine Chin), can’t wait to post the news about Lexi’s involvement in a fatal accident but is willing to attempt sympathy because, as she keeps saying, “your friend died.”

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Lexi doesn’t want to drive in cars, she doesn’t want to go to class. She doesn’t really want to leave her dorm room. What starts out as a funny Skype session with a maybe boyfriend (Devin O’Brien plays all the guys), turns, as things in this play tend to do, dark and serious, indicating that the accident isn’t the only thing tormenting Lexi.

It’s highly likely that all the weirdness in the winter world of Connecticut is a reflection of Lexi’s inner turmoil, but let’s just say it’s really bloody (and bloody interesting) weirdness. Director Becca Wolff delivers a fast-paced 75-minute play with a cast that seems to come more and more to life as the play continues to deepen and darken. Jones’ Lexi is a compelling central character, complex and unreliable as she strains to make sense of grief and guilt and growing pains. Matthes and Chin are colorful characters in Lexi’s life with their talk of otters, Joan Didion and Jameson’s Irish whiskey, but the stage really comes to life with the entrance of Aily Roper as Chloe, a high-energy coed with a penchant for petitions and protests and almost Tourette-like truth telling. Roper has the kind of wild, unpredictable presence that feeds the unsettling nature of this comedy. Sure it’s funny, but it’s also deadly serious, and so is Roper (whose pre-curtain call routine is priceless).

Jessica Lynn Carroll makes a late-in-play appearance as a high school sophomore to haunt your dreams and pierce your hopes for the future of civilization, and though there’s a less bleak ending, a grim weight still presses down after the bows.

In Yee’s Hookman, it’s not the slasher part that’s upsetting (some of the blood effects are quite good), nor is is the comedy that prickles. It’s that existential part that draws blood.

Lauren Yee’s Hookman, an Encore Theatre Company production, continues through May 30 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 866-811-4111 or visit

Blood, gore, giggles galore at Impact Theatre

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Dana Featherby (left), Sarah Coykendall (center) and Maria Giere Marquis are three young women arming themselves for the world outside their door in Lauren Gunderson’s Damsel and Distress Go to a Party, one of the nine violent short plays in Impact Theatre’s Bread and Circuses. Below: Eric Kerr is a man with memory issues in Declan Greene’s Marimba, one of the more serious entries in Bread and Circuses. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Blood is fun – at least it is within the confines of Impact Theatre’s omnibus presentation Bread and Circuses, a collection of nine short plays fairly dripping with the thick red stuff.

As you’d expect with such an assortment, there’s a wide variety in style and substance here. There’s also one easy-to-draw conclusion: endings are hard.

The most satisfying entries in this two-hour experience at LaVal’s Subterranean include:

  • Heteronesia by Prince Gomolvilas about a dude so traumatized during masturbation (by a severed horse head falling through the window) that he’s unable to perform sexually in any way and must, under doctor’s orders, be gang banged by a football team. Hilarious. You don’t want to know where the blood comes from in this one.
  • Damsel and Distress Go to a Party by Lauren Gunderson is set in a dystopian future where three women are “putting on their faces” as they get ready to go to a party. They use the word “face” an awful lot in their slangy descriptions of themselves and their friends, and what emerges is a violent picture of women suffering abuse but choosing a warrior path (complete with painted warrior faces). (Now that I think about it, I don’t remember any blood in this short play – perhaps the war paint/makeup can be considered a stand-in for blood.)
  • Marimba by Declan Greene is the evening’s only solo outing and involves the actor Eric Kerr in an unsettling performance as a man for whom thought and memory has gone very wrong. The “marimba” of the title is the name of the ring tone on his iPhone that goes off at regular intervals and creates the jagged trajectory of this alarming tale. There’s blood here, but its appearance should remain a surprise.
  • The Play About the Aswang by Lauren Yee has a great set-up: a single mom is dating a flesh-eating Filipino monster. She can’t quite see the problem with that (even with the bones protruding from the bloody wound where her hand used to be), but her son and his best friend are quite alarmed and ready to do something about it. What’s really interesting about this short play is the way it blends horror, adult sexuality and adolescent sexuality in surprising ways.

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Those were my favorites, but that said, there isn’t one play here that doesn’t have something interesting about it. Steve Yockey has fun subverting horror movie tropes in Bedtime by having the traditional victim victimizing someone else to gain the upper hand. Dave Holstein’s Alone Together gives us a nightmarish mother-daughter scenario wherein the scariest thing (even more than the babysitter scalping) might be the fact that the mother participates in a social event called “jam night” that involves jars of actual jam.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Insect Love is a low-key 1950s love story among entomologists that is kind of sweet until the shadow of violence looms. Ross Maxwell’s Don’t Turn Around starts off as pure monster-driven horror but turns quickly into relationship hell as a young couple fleeing zombie-like creatures in a mall are sidetracked by their surprise break-up. And the evening comes to a satisfying end with JC Lee’s very funny The Reanimation of Marlene Dietrich, which is exactly what it purports to be. How the story’s teenagers came to find Dietrich’s body to reanimate remains a mystery, but who cares when Lee gives us a flesh-eating Marlene pauses to sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Director Desdemona Chiang and her game cast are clearly having fun here. In addition to Kerr’s turn in Marimba, MVP honors are shared by Maria Giere Marquis, who is a terror of a little girl, a woman warrior, a quiet secretary and, perhaps most memorably, the reanimated corpse of Marlene Dietrich. The rest of the cast – Sarah Coykendall, Mike Delaney, Dana Featherby and Maro Guevara – all have excellent moments and add to the show’s fun, raggedy energy. But as is often the case at Impact, there are some serious smarts under the blood and irreverence.

Impact Theatre’s Bread and Circuses continues through April 6 at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid, Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$25. Visit

Tip o’ the Hat to Yee’s wacky theatrical fable

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Jeff Garrett is Hetchman and Patricia Silver is Hetchman’s wife in the world premiere of Lauren Yee’s A Man, his Wife, and his Hat, an AlterTheater production. Below: Garrett’s Hetchman befriends a Golem played by Jonathan Deline. Photos by Benjamin Privitt

Talk about your unconventional love stories! Lauren Yee’s charming world-premiere play A Man, his Wife, and his Hat is a romance between an elderly hat maker and his favorite hat.

So where does this relationship leave the hat maker’s wife? Lonely and without a hat, that’s where. When she up and leaves, it’s hardly surprising. The only question was why was she with this chapeau-loving bozo in the first place?

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense in this story, but that’s part of the point. Yee, working under commission from San Rafael’s AlterTheater has created a quirky fable with a decidedly Yiddish storytelling tilt.

It doesn’t all hold together in director Robin Stanton’s enjoyable production, though there’s genuine humor and emotion in abundance.

The core of the story – between Hetchman (Jeff Garrett) and his nameless wife (Patricia Silver) – is wry and compelling. Hetchman, who seems to live his life in an overstuffed easy chair, loses his hat. Then he loses his wife, which frankly doesn’t affect him nearly as much as the hat.

As Hetchman tells his wife, he’s not the “I love you type.” “I guess I’m the I-am-married-to-you-so-oh-well type.” Doesn’t he sound like a catch?

As played by the amiable Garrett, Hetchman is irascible and kvetchy but sort of sad. His only real contact with the world is his neighbor, Meckel (Ed Holmes), whose affection for the family is not without its ulterior motives. In Lee’s lovely, storyteller voice, we learn that Meckel “always lived in a giant hat-shaped shadow of Hetchman.”

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The whimsy of the tale is highlighted by the character of Wall, voiced by Nakissa Etemad and brought to life through the video and sound design of Norman Kern. Wall is sort of a god-like presence, narrating and manipulating the story, sometimes in mischievous ways. There’s also an element of music – “hat music” as it’s called when someone joyfully dons a hat – that feels under-developed, though Daniel Savio’s clarinet-infused music is lovely.

Hetchman’s story takes an odd, not entirely rewarding turn with the introduction of a Golem, a sort of monster from Jewish lore that can be protective or dangerous.

Jonathan Deline makes for a disarming Golem, but his function here remains a bit too enigmatic.

The part of the play that doesn’t work as well involves a narrator known as Voice (Jeanette Harrison), who begins the play behind a podium but eventually becomes a major player in the plot – a little too major because her journey conflicts too much with Hetchman’s.

There’s also a movie-of-the-week quality to this part of the plot, even if Voice’s fiancé (Hugo E. Carbajal) is about to lose the battle with gravity and float up into the sky.

So why a contemporary Yiddish-lite fable? Why not? It’s exciting that Yee is pushing boundaries, paying homage to theatrical history, having fun with conventions and blending high-tech (the Wall) and ageless (clarinet music, Golems). It feels like A Man, his Wife, and his Hat is still a work in progress, but it’s a work of abundant delight.

Lauren Yee’s A Man, his Wife, and his Hat continues through Dec. 4 at AlterTheater’s temporary space, 1414 Fourth St., San Rafael. Tickets are $25. Visit

Review: `Ching Chong Chinaman’

The cast of Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman at Impact Theatre includes (from left) Dennis Yen, Arthur Keng, Sung Min Park, Cindy Im and Lisa Kang. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Impact gets irreverent with Yee’s `Ching Chong’
(three stars)

NOTE: Dates added to the run: Monday, Oct. 6 and Wednesday, Oct. 8. The Monday show will be a cast & crew benefit: all proceeds from that evening’s admissions and donations will be split among the cast and crew, all of whom are struggling artists who have generously donated most of their time in the name of supporting great local small theatre.

Before we dive into Impact Theatre’s season-opening Ching Chong Chinaman, a word on Impact’s reboot of its performance space, LaVal’s Subterranean.

If you’re unfamiliar with this Berkeley performance spot, you probably don’t know that it’s actually the basement of LaVal’s Pizzeria at the north gate of the UC Berkeley campus. It’s not the most inviting of spaces – small, cramped, artistically challenging. But as teenagers across the country know, good things can happen in basements.

Despite the physical limitations, Impact, the theater’s resident company, usually manages to do good, imaginative work while audience members chomp on pizza slices and guzzle beer. Well, this summer, Impact upgraded the space in two major ways: the space now has a door to help cut down noise from the busy pie factory upstairs (the clomping on the floor above will always be with us) and there are all-new seats to give audience tushies a smooth ride through Impact’s dramatic adventures.

The seats help ease the crammed-in feeling and contribute to easing the sight-line issues, which is all the better to enjoy San Francisco playwright Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman, a gleefully irreverent, audaciously un-PC comedy about cultural identity.

Taking place almost entirely in the minty green Palo Alto kitchen of the Wong home (excellent set by Edward Ross, lit by Kelly Kunaniec), Yee quickly introduces us to a highly Americanized Chinese-American family.

Dad Ed (Dennis Yen) and mom Grace (Lisa Kang) have virtually no connection to their ancestry. One major concern of the family is to have their eyes “nice and wide open” for the annual photo Christmas card.

Their teenage children, Desdemona (Cindy Im) and Upton Sinclair Lewis (Arthur Keng), have even less cultural identity than their parents. Desdemona (Desi for short), desperate to get into Princeton, defies Asian stereotypes by not being good at math. Upton is a videogame addict specializing in “World of Warcraft,” and in order to win a tournament, he needs help doing his homework and chores.

Being a crafty guy, Upton buys an indentured servant from China in the form of Jin Qiang (Sung Min Park), whose name, as pronounced by members of the family, comes out sounding like “Ching Chong.” Though he speaks no English, it’s up to Jin to teach the Wongs how to use chopsticks.

One nice thing about Yee’s play, under the direction of Desdemona Chiang, is that it consistently defies sitcom rhythms and continually takes surprising turns. You don’t expect Jin to be an ambitious dancer who wants a spot on the reality series “America’s Next Top Dancer.” You don’t expect the action to shift to Mexico for a belated quinceañera, nor do you expect a Korean orphan (played by Pearl Wong, a deft comic actress essaying a number of small roles) to be pummeled by her altruistic American sponsor.

There are some great laughs in Ching Chong, but the play turns unexpectedly moving in its final moments when everything the Wongs thought they knew about culture and family is shaken and they’re forced to redefine life on their own terms.

Friday’s sold-out opening-night performance had some pacing issues early in Act 1, but the actors soon hit their stride, and the comedy and satire fired more assuredly.

Chiang’s cast rolls with the surprises in Yee’s script and finds humanity the comedy. Especially effective are Park as Jin, a stranger in a strange family, and Kang as Grace, a clueless mom who slowly gets a clue. Their scenes together are tender and even sexy.

Oh, and by the way, the seats – even in a hot basement on a sweltering late-summer night – couldn’t have been more comfortable.


Impact artistic director Melissa Hillman made the funniest “turn off your phone” speech I’ve yet to hear in a theater. She said that if your phone goes off during the show, “I will swallow it and you can come back for it later.”

Ching Chong Chinaman continues through Oct. 10 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$15 in advance and $10-$17 at the door. Call 510-464-4468 or visit

Impact’s new `Bar Mitzvah’ season: Mazel tov!

“We’re calling it our Bar Mitzvah season not just because the company is run by two Jews,” says Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman referring to herself and managing director Cheshire Isaacs. “This season we’re taking some large leaps forward. It really is a rite of passage for us.”

Yes, Impact Theatre, one of the Bay Area’s most youthfully invigorating theater companies (their motto is: “Theater that doesn’t suck”) opens its 13th season next month with Lauren Yee’s irreverent new comedy Ching Chong Chinaman. The play won the 2007 Yale Playwrights Festival and made its debut at the New York Fringe Festival shortly after. Yee is a Bay Area native and is the founder and executive director of the San Francisco Young Playwright’s Festival.

Skewering every cliché about Asian-American identity, Yee’s play receives its West Coast premiere under the direction of former Impact associate artistic director Desdemona Chiang.

Next up, in November, is Melanie Marnich’s Tallgrass Gothic, a spare, haunting drama based on the Jaobean tragedy The Changeling. In this adaptation, the action takes place in the Great Plains, where Laura yearns to leave her hometown and escape her abusive husband. A lover appears to promise her a way out, but that path leads to a devastating climax.

Tallgrass was featured in the 2004 Humana Festival of New Plays, and Marnich’s works have been on some of the country’s major regional stages. But this production marks her Bay Area professional debut.

In February 2009, Hillman directs the company’s seventh “classic with a twist.” Previous outings have been heavy Shakespeare (Henry IV, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, Measure for Measure). This time around, however, Hillman is in a lighter, brighter mood and will be directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her production, while retaining Shakespeare’s language, will be set in 1980s nightclubs.

The season concludes with the return of Impact Briefs in May 2009, an evening of original short plays on a theme, which this time around will be puberty.

“Impact may be growing up in many ways, but we’re still 13 years old,” Hillman says with a laugh. “I think puberty describes exactly where we are in our development. That said, no matter how old we get, we’re always going to have this streak in us.”

In addition to its roster of plays, the Impact season comes with some other news: audiences will enjoy new seats in LaVal’s Subterranean, the basement theater space under a Berkeley pizzeria. And the seats have fold out desks that promise to make the eating of pizza during the show that much easier.

Also, subscriptions are available for the first time – a full season commitment figures $13 per show. And the date for Impact’s popular poker night fundraiser, Full Houses, has been set for July 11, 2009.