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THEATER BEAT

'Paper Son' a deft mix of comedy, gravitas

October 03, 2003|F. Kathleen Foley; Daryl H. Miller; David C. Nichols

Byron Yee has been honing his autobiographical one-man show, "Paper Son," for several years on the small-theater circuit. That polish shows in the play's production at the Gascon Center Theatre.

A veteran stand-up comic with the timing to prove it, Yee, who was raised in Oklahoma, explains how he went in search of his Chinese roots and discovered a rich and unsuspected past.

The title refers to the way many Chinese skirted the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 1880s, which banned most Chinese from coming to America unless they were the biological offspring of immigrants already in this country. By pretending to be the son of an immigrant, a Chinese man, in effect a "paper son," could gain admittance -- but only after weeks of detention and interrogation by immigration authorities.

Yee's father, who came to America and became a mining engineer, was such a paper son, although it took Yee half a lifetime to discover that telling fact.

The action commences with Yee's hilarious account of a humiliating film audition. Indeed, Yee's material initially seems dangerously close to a mere stand-up routine, but as the play progresses, so does its gravitas. The latter part of the play explains how Yee unearthed his father's history through national archives -- and how the information about his family origins altered and enriched his perspective forever.

Under the direction of Glen Chin, Yee brings a clockwork precision to his winning performance. At the curtain call, Yee offers to help other Chinese Americans search the archives for their own histories. It's a touching final gesture in a touching, funny show.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Paper Son," Gascon Center Theatre, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 2. $22. (310) 428-6502. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

*

Two takes on violence and fear

When fear and distrust combust into hatred, they can reduce everything to ashes. Two shows at the newly relaunched Tamarind Theatre knowingly survey this propensity, from the smoky death clouds over Nazi Germany to the hot spots of the present day.

One presentation speaks far more powerfully than the other, however. The deliciously macabre Bertolt Brecht compilation "Berliner Cabaret: Brecht, Hollywood and War" wraps piercing insight in gallows humor, tickling theatergoers' ribs even as it smacks them over the head. The 1996 Harold Pinter play "Ashes to Ashes," being presented in Los Angeles for the first time, tries for a similar effect, though its merits are impossible to assess in this dreadful vanity presentation featuring new Tamarind owner and producer Francesco Vitali.

Di Trevis, who has worked with Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre, directed both pieces. She also devised "Berliner Cabaret," pulling together writings and song lyrics from throughout Brecht's career. Interspersing spoken segments with songs, she retraces the German writer's trek through a world gone mad as -- horrified and outspoken -- he flees Nazism only to find himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the United States.

From their function as all-purpose scene-setters and Greek chorus, five chameleonic performers -- Brett Baker, Maisie Dimbleby, Jenny Galloway, Wayne Scherzer and Erik Sorensen -- emerge as boxers, prostitutes and all manner of working poor. Through hard experience, they have come to see the world as a sinister place intent on burying justice-seekers or otherwise snuffing out dissent.

The question "In the dark times, will there also be singing?" is answered in fractured melodies -- most composed by Kurt Weill or Hans Eisler -- that are poised on a knife's edge between laughter and tears.

Some of the material is familiar from "The Threepenny Opera" ("Ballad of Mack the Knife") or "Mother Courage," while lesser-known pieces fly out of the dark with a knockout punch.

Building upon pianist Trevor Berens' solid foundation, Dimbleby delivers a powerful rendition of "The Song of Surabaya Johnny" (from "Happy End"), her voice on the edge of tears as she berates a wandering lover even as she declares her love for him.

Also haunting: the deadness in Galloway's voice as she delivers "The Song of the German Mother," who laments sending her son off in jackboots and brown shirt, only to see her country reduced to "ashes and dirt," "ashes and bloodstained stone."

These words echo in the short Pinter play "Ashes to Ashes." Director Trevis arranges actors Vitali and Diana Jellinek in artfully meaningful poses as their characters play an enigmatic game of cat and mouse, the man sullenly questioning the woman about a mysterious and perhaps brutal affair with another man. The woman's vague allusions to trains, guides (i.e. "guards") and babies snatched from mothers' arms conjure images of the Holocaust.

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