Monday, May 22, 2017

A Middling Murder Mystery

How many contemporary Asian American characters can you name in popular media today? 

Photo by Bob Suh

That was the question met with total silence at the intermission of Charles Francis Chan Jr's Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (OMM hereafter), Mu Performing Arts' latest offering that is now showing at the Guthrie through May 28. I thought about it for a while afterwards and there are a few notable portrayals - the screaming fresh Fresh Off the Boat or Aziz Ansari's exquisite Master of None among them - but on the whole, Asian Americans are still highly underrepresented in the wider world of American pop culture.

OMM tackles the question of representation literally, following Frank Chan as he navigates the process of creating his own art to help him be the change he wants to see in the world. The play is split between Frank writing his play and acting in it himself; the writing process evolves as the performances take shape, and the story ends on a much different note and with much different results than Frank intended at the beginning. Frank is guided to his realizations by a mystical Capuchin monkey and his wife Kathy and foiled by the depressing blended incarnation of his father and typical Asian stereotype, Charlie Chan. Suzy and Charlie Sr. also step in to help flesh out the show.

Photo by Bob Suh

Eric Sharp is, well, sharp as Frank Chan. I believe it's his first time working on a Mu show and I was so impressed with his delivery. Sharp slides through the difficult dialogue with ease, and I can see him in even meatier roles in the future. Hope Nordquist is a good pair with Sharp as Chan's wife Kathy, with a pointed delivery that pushes Chan to think more holistically about his goals and problems. Stephanie Bertumen and Song Kim are bombastic as Chan's sidekicks and helpmeets; Luverne Seifert is appropriately disgusting as the stereotypical, yellow-faced Charlie; and Randy Reyes is a little weird as OMM's resident mystical monkey.

The set is split into two vignettes, which the actors flip between to tell the story of Frank Chan and also to "perform" the play Chan is writing. Both are kept to the simplest iteration imaginable, as are the costumes (which don't change much throughout the show). Some clever lighting helps provide OMM with the mystical feel of a caper, and there are plenty of good sound effects to help spice up the action. A notable detail is the use of having the audience witness the actors applying their makeup, which is particularly painful when Seifert dons his "yellow-face" as Charlie Chan and Bertumen her "white face" to portray a wealthy white woman. It's uncomfortable watching the actors transform into a stereotype for no other purpose than to flay it, and the process makes the point about representation far more elegantly than words could ever say. It's also the second time in less than a week that I watched an actor paint themselves another color on stage; is there a trend brewing in local companies?

Photo by Bob Suh

I was a little disappointed with OMM overall, and it had mostly to do with the script. LLoyd Suh has a lot of important things to say about Asian representation in American culture and there are several lovely, vital, barbed monologues scattered throughout the play, but it feels like the point of them is lost in all the moving parts of the show itself. The murder mystery portion of the show, which was what initially drew me to OMM in the first place, is less Agatha Christie and more Comedy of Errors. The mystery feels muddled, some of the connections between characters are set adrift, and it's just not always clear where the show itself is going. It's easier to envision this script more as a cartoon series, stretched out with a little breathing room between narratives, than as a live action stage play.

That being said, the actors from Mu Performing Arts give it their all as always. It was a pleasure to be introduced to Eric Sharp (I'm hoping to see a lot more of him!) and more of old favorites like Stephanie Bertumen. Mu always provides audiences with stories that are original, interesting and complex, and I wholeheartedly endorse exploring their work, even if it's not my favorite thing I've seen them do. If you need to escape our unseasonably cool, rainy weather, slide over to the Guthrie's 9th floor for some $9 tickets and a new show that will make you pay closer attention to the media and stereotypes surrounding us every day. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

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