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Valley Life | theater review

Silliness Is Entertaining, but Message Is Obscured

August 04, 2000|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You know that author, lyricist and actor Keisuke Hoashi is not in a serious mood when he comes onto the stage of Secret Rose Theatre as an aging Ninja warrior named Ed wearing a fake beard with rubber band visibly wrapped around his chin.

Hoashi's musical-comedy "Memoirs of a Ninja" wants to spoof everything in sight--from "RiverDance" to "Kung Fu"--but this mission demands a whole lot more skill than is on display.

There's a little rule in spoof comedy: Never, ever, be worse than the thing you're making fun of. The show, under Derek Chin's slightly sloppy direction, forgets the rule too often for its own good.

At the same time, lurking in this piece is a devilish sense of satirizing current politically correct attitudes toward race and Asian Americans, down to the kind of theater that seems most "appropriate" for Asian minorities to do. Like Sandra Tsing Loh, another good-hearted critic of politically correct ways, Hoashi--in the guise of Ed--knocks a few sacred cows upside the head.

At one point, for example, Ed tells his memoirist (Alicia-Lee) that he prefers to be called "Oriental," just to see people's reactions.

At another point, Ed feels the urge to get out of the Ninja biz and into show biz by trying out at the Westeast Ninja Martial Arts Theatre Company--an obvious dig at L.A.'s leading Asian theater group, East West Players.

It's rare to see an artist of a specific ethnicity throw darts at an institution formed to boost the artist's ethnic group, so you have to give Hoashi points for sheer nerve.

But his musical is little more than a weak string of episodes, barely tied together and hardly making any sense by the end.

Although Brian Lewis' score is deliberately derivative, from rap to the Broadway style of hearts-and-flowers ballads, it isn't very well developed, and hardly up to the stuff it's satirizing.

It also sends out some confusing messages. Ron Edward Baker as the dictatorial Ninja master Xix'ian Ju (pronounced "Christian Jew") is funny, especially when he spoofs the facial reactions common in "chop-socky" martial arts movies. (Baker can also get away with it because he puts on a fine physical show.) But why a guy who looks like a quarterback for a Texas football team is playing a Chinese Ninja master (odd, considering that Ninja is a uniquely Japanese martial art) is a joke that the company may enjoy, but it eludes the audience.

*

Even Hoashi's anti-politically correct inserts throughout the show are undercut by other messages decrying prejudice against minorities and gays, such as Ed's Ninja buddy, Brucie (V. Ray Boddie), whom Xix'ian Ju wants assassinated. The evil master even reveals his homophobia.

"Memoirs of a Ninja" ends up being uneasily hinged between a left-liberal spoof a la San Francisco Mime Troupe and a more personal, less doctrinaire comedy.

Still, the show is basically nonstop silliness, and the peppy presence of Aiko Yamamoto as one of the Ninja warriors is pure fun.

With more of her kind of energy, and more attention to the kind of craft that makes spoofs like this truly work, this "Ninja" could conceivably knock 'em dead.

*

"Memoirs of a Ninja," Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 27. $15. (818) 754-8686. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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