As interesting as it is unexpected, Derek Nguyen's "Voices" may be the most exciting production offered under the auspices of the Plaza Players in some time. The anthology of monologues and sketches, subtitled "A Theatrical Quilt," closes its two-week run this weekend.
The latest in a series of Plaza Players productions by UC Santa Barbara students, "Voices" examines the life of young Asian Americans from the perspective of . . . a 22-year-old Asian American. Nguyen, whose family escaped Vietnam on a raft following the fall of Saigon, was raised in Florida and is currently in the university's playwright program. The cast, all of Asian ancestry, also attends UCSB, variously majoring in drama, film, music and mathematics.
The play opened on the UCSB campus March 3 and moved to Ventura last weekend.
Divided into 10 segments, "Voices" features the six cast members in different combinations. It begins with "Burnt Butterflies." Sharmila Guha portrays a young woman who becomes (she thinks) the first Asian to star in "Madame Butterfly." It's an honor, of course, and Guha is a fine singer in her own right. But the contrast between Asian cultures as she understands them and as Puccini has written (she's an East Indian portraying a Japanese in Italian) leads to mixed feelings.
Ethnic identity and problems that arise when assimilation is at issue are Nguyen's two main themes, with stories gleaned from a series of interviews as well as his own experiences and those of personal acquaintances and the cast. Most sketches begin with a taped recitation, recreating an original interview and melding into the onstage action. Nguyen's writing is anecdotal, not preachy, and he scores his points with intelligence and wit.
Nguyen also uses masks and dance elements drawn from, but not duplicating, the noh theater tradition of Japan. The modernization, he says, is part of his attempt to show that there is not only an Asian voice, but also an Asian American voice. His actors are of Chinese, Vietnamese, East Indian and Malaysian-Caucasian parentage; their roles span an even wider ethnic diversity.
Other sketches display the contrast between a woman's (Emily Yep) home life and her romantic fantasies in an original manner; a Filipina (Kathy Kwan alternating with Rosanne Ma) who becomes a little too Americanized; a young man (Justin Silverman) coming to terms with his strict family as he discloses his gayness to them; and an embarrassing incident at a tae kwan do class, related by a nervous student (Charles Ton).
One of the most interestingly written pieces, "Last Year's Kisses," tells of a woman (Guha) who loved not wisely but too well; stories taking place several years apart are shown simultaneously, an effect that's at first slightly confusing. One of the funniest sketches finds a pretentious young man (Ton) trying to impress his patient fiancee (Yep) in an art museum.
The final piece features each member of the cast relating an anecdote from his or her own life, again ranging from humorous to quite sad; it's titled "Salad Bowl" to reflect Nguyen's view of the United States as a land of diverse elements, like a salad, rather than a "melting pot" mush.
Original plays are rare enough in community theater; interesting originals even more so. An opportunity to see such a work performed by a uniformly capable cast shouldn't be missed.
* WHAT: "Voices."
* WHEN: Friday through Sunday at 8 p.m.
* WHERE: Plaza Players Theater, 34 N. Palm St. (in the Livery Arts Center), Ventura.
* HOW MUCH: $10; $8 students and seniors.
* CALL: For reservations or information, call 643-9460.