Review

'King of the Yees': Questions of identity, family and Shrimp Boy brought to surreal life onstage

Lauren Yee’s play starts out straightforwardly enough: An actress playing Yee (Stephenie Soohyun Park) is rehearsing the play with an actor portraying the playwright’s father, Larry Yee (Francis Jue). Suddenly, the “real” Larry Yee arrives at the theater, full of enthusiasm and unwelcome suggestions. The “real” playwright Lauren Yee can barely contain her irritation at the interruption.

This kind of dizzying funhouse ride into an alternate reality and then back again is “King of the Yees,” presented in association with the Goodman Theatre of Chicago at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

Although the play can be maddeningly random, it is a delightfully disorderly entertainment, as sprawling and silly as it is unexpectedly moving.

In the play — and in real life — Larry is a proud member of the Yee Fung Toy Family Assn., a Chinese American men’s club formed 150 years ago. As a public-minded booster with a strong attachment to his proud Yee lineage, Larry refuses to acknowledge that his club is on the rocks — as is the financially beleaguered Chinatown of San Francisco, where the Yees had prospered for generations.

In the play and in life, Lauren uses “King of the Yees” to explore Chinese American identity as filtered through the microcosm of Chinatown — a community she views as socially backward and derelict. Purposefully clueless about Chinese culture, she has married a non-Asian and is moving for her husband’s job to Germany — as far from her ethnic roots as she can get.

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We soon realize Lauren’s meta-theatrical take on her family history is just a jumping-off point down the rabbit hole. After Larry receives the crushing news that Leland Yee, the politician he has slavishly supported for years, has been arrested on corruption charges (as happened in real life), he disappears into the unknown and Lauren must make a fairy-tale-like journey to find him. Along the way she meets quirky characters, many of a supernatural nature, who ultimately reconnect her with not only her father but with her heritage.

The cast is rounded out by three actors — Rammel Chan, Daniel Smith and Angela Lin — who all play a variety of roles. Oddity is the order of this production, with director Joshua Kahan Brody eliciting deliciously over-the-top performances from his cast.

Brody’s funny, zingy staging is very much in keeping with the tone of the play, which sometimes ventures too far in the pursuit of whimsy. Cases in point: when Lauren’s two performers, waiting backstage for rehearsal to resume, are inexplicably sucked into a kind of limbo, or when the gangland character of Shrimp Boy drops into the action with a loud bang. The character, a real-life part of the Yee corruption case, may be a great excuse for a riotous slow-motion shootout, but dramatically, he’s a non sequitur.

The show’s design elements — Williams Boles’ set, Heather Gilbert’s lighting, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound and Mike Tutaj’s projection design — help to lend focus to the haphazardness. Izumi Inaba’s costumes, which range from the everyday to the comically lavish, are a standout.

A cheeky playwright with a highly developed sense of the improbable, Lauren Yee brings her fable full circle with a touching coda about family heritage that may provoke unanticipated tears. Although sometimes undisciplined, she boldly wields her distinctively offbeat humor to connect us to our better selves.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘King of the Yees’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Fridays; 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday

Tickets: $25-$70

Info: (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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