The strongest whiskey, the sweetest oranges, and the loudest firecrackers. If Lauren (Krystle Piamonte) can collect these offerings before sunset, she’ll become — somewhat inexplicably and mystically — empowered to open a locked set of doors in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her father Larry (Francis Jue) entered and then disappeared behind them on the night of his 60th birthday party. Lauren Yee’s exhilarating play King of the Yees — at SF Playhouse through March 2 — is an odyssey in which the heroine’s journey of self-discovery is dependent upon the recovery of her cultural heritage. But the playwright consistently zaps the sentiment of that New Age theme with delightful bursts of irony, witty social commentary, and flashes of unrestrained joy.
Yee also successfully experiments with the way she shapes the narrative. Instead of a linear storyline that follows Lauren from point A to point B, the playwright will insert an unrelated point K or move on to a random point G. To illustrate those odd tangents, she employs a malleable Greek chorus whose members move deftly between multiple roles. In the very first scene, Jomar Tagatac plays “Larry” with Rinabeth Apostol as “Lauren.” But before their parent-child interaction gets very far, the house lights turn on and Piamonte and Jue take the stage as the real Lauren and Larry. Of course, they’re actors too standing in for the fictionalized playwright and her father.
From then on, Apostol and Tagatac — a third member of the chorus, Will Dao, joins them later — shapeshift in and out of characters who comment on or stand just outside of the narrative. During these autonomous comic interludes, the duo suddenly shows up off-stage or, on stage but off-center, coming out of a darkened scene change. Collectively, their ongoing conversations look like they’re taking place in a separate play, apart from the main one featuring Lauren’s quest. In some ways, they’re like the protagonists in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, given only partial knowledge about their motivations as they suffer through recurring interruptions. Apostol and Tagatac are not having an existential crisis about their fates. They’re just reveling in snarky asides.
One such exchange roused the audience to a vigorous round of applause. Tagatac coaches Apostol, one actor to another, on how to say the word “Chinese.” He races through a string of analogies including the suggestion that you should say the first syllable like you’ve been punched in the gut. All the while Apostol’s keeping up with his exclamations. As their improvisations build up steam, they reach a point of palpable elation. Yee’s dialogue for them eschews political correctness. It’s filled with piquant barbs about race and racism — but from an insider’s point of view. Caucasian actors would be hissed out of the auditorium if, for example, they mocked the booming plastic-surgery industry in Korea. The jokes may still make you cringe but they land in comedic — and not hostile — territory because Asian American actors deliver them.
When Lauren’s on stage, Yee parallels those discussions by incorporating stereotypical Chinese characters into the plot line — and then subverts them. She introduces an erhu player, a lion dancer, and an acupuncturist with a Fu Manchu mustache. In one such inspired scene, the lion will only part with the sweetest oranges if Lauren dances with him. And she does, to a medley of tunes which includes Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” Up until this point, Piamonte has been emotionally restrained as a dutiful but deeply conflicted daughter. Once she’s physically liberated, the actress and the character she’s playing light up. For the better part of King of the Yees, this Lauren doesn’t square up with the wildly inventive playwright who wrote it. The Lauren-surrogate on stage is polite, reserved, and rather dull. This disconnect may be Yee’s hesitancy to portray an emboldened version of herself, to let an audience see the aspect of her imagination that brings thunder to the stage when anyone mentions the notorious Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow. This partial rendition reminded me of Tina Fey’s alter-ego Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. In real life, the extremely accomplished Fey is leagues away from the bumbling, insecure yet always entertaining Lemon.
For her final task, Lauren must confront a face-changer (biàn liǎn, in Chinese) for the loudest firecrackers. Here he’s a sinister figure, brother to the Grim Reaper, a character borrowed from the Sichuan opera. His face is a painted mask that magically disappears and reappears, one after another. Like the Sphinx to Oedipus, he poses a riddle to her. If Lauren solves it, he’ll relinquish the firecrackers. If she doesn’t, he’ll cut off her face with his knife and claim it for himself. She takes this risk because she’s disconnected from her father and her Chinese heritage. Lauren’s part of a new generation of Asian Americans who have assimilated — but at a cost. If she can open those fabled doors in Chinatown, she might be able to reclaim one of the faces she’s kept in hiding, even and especially from herself.
King of the Yees, through March 2, at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St. $30-$85; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph