A grandmother who commits suicide by lighting herself on fire in a car. A staid scientist father who belts out karaoke songs. A sackful of broken Japanese records, smashed in haste before the trip to an internment camp.
These are some of the compelling images in playwright-performance artist Denise Uyehara's "Headless Turtleneck Relatives," at Highways. But the dreamscape of family memories is only half the pleasure of this accomplished solo. The rest is Uyehara herself, who's as graceful and agile onstage as she is on the page.
Beginning as a young girl mortified by her grandmother's supply of kamaboko (Japanese fish cake), Uyehara slips in and out of personas from several generations of her family. One minute, she becomes her ancestor simply by pulling an oversized shirt over her head, walking stooped and speaking in an old woman's voice. And the next, she's a young woman of the '90s, preening and psyching up for a night on the town.
Her transitions are fluid and economical, the telling of her tales pointed and the performance itself pristine. The material careens from tragedy to irony, and from past to present to future. Yet the intensity builds as the work moves toward its final section, in which Uyehara recounts her grandmother's self-immolation.
Music is a recurring motif and the clear-voiced Uyehara sings everything from Japanese folk tunes to an imitation of her dad doing Old Blue Eyes. In fact, what separates Uyehara from the pack is that she has both a voice, as in stage and vocal skills, and a voice , as in a sharply realized point of view.
"We think of them as weak, women suicides," she says, apropos of her grandmother. "If she were my grandfather, we would have said 'I guess he just knew it was time to go.' "
"Headless Turtleneck Relatives," which is part of Highways' third annual Treasure in the House series of Asian American performance, is not perfect yet. The writing has some comparatively generic moments and the staging needs work. Uyehara, who has directed herself, needs someone to help her bridge the transitions between scenes and energize the pacing.
Cavils aside though, "Headless Turtleneck Relatives" is the work of an arresting 26-year-old talent. Recently awarded a $25,000 AT&T; grant to have her play "Hiro" staged at East West Players next summer, Uyehara is definitely one to watch.
* "Headless Turtleneck Relatives," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica . Tonight, 8:30 p.m., Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $10. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.