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    The Square

    Bright angles

    "The Square" presents 16 short plays about Asian-American life, some of them cryptic or insubstantial but most of them well acted and thought-provoking.


    "The Square" starts with four actors drawing a large white square on the black stage with boxes of salt. Within the square are performed 16 short plays, some by well-known playwrights, related to Asians and Asian-Americans over more than a century. Some feel incomplete, especially at the beginning, but they start to blend into a more complete history of the Asian-American experience in its many facets.

    Company: Ma-Yi Theater Co..
    Written by: Bridget Carpenter, Ping Chong, Constance Congdon, Kia Corthron, Maria Irene Fornes, Philip Kan Gotan.
    Directed by: Lisa Peterson.
    Cast: David Wilson Barnes, Joel de la Fuente, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Michael Ray Escamilla, Fiona Gallagher, Wai Ching Ho, Jennifer Ikeda, Ken Leung, Hamish Linklater, Ching Valdes-Aran, Henry Yuk, Janet Zarish.
    Conceived and curated by: Lisa Peterson and Chay Yew.

    Related links: Official site
    Some episodes stand out as especially well-crafted and entertaining. "Jade Flowerpots and Bound Feet" by David Henry Hwang pokes fun at the gruesomely honest Chinese family memoir genre with the story of a woman meeting trying to sell her own story. "Wo de mingzee shee Guok Meili" ("my namee be Guo Meili"), the woman says by way of introduction in horribly butchered Chinese, and the interview goes downhill from there.

    "Examination" by Craig Lucas mixes the coming-out story with the Asian-American family generation-gap story. A doctor-patient consultation turns personal as the two (Ken Leung, Hamish Linklater) discover that they have ex-boyfriends in common. Their wary conversation is cut short by the chaotic arrival of the doctor's Chinese-born parents. Even within a play of just a few minutes' length, the characterizations are deep and the story suggests a complexity growing out of the combination of gay and immigrant issues.

    A good half of the plays are less than straightforward, seeming sometimes to say obvious things in obtuse ways. In particular, Maria Irene Fornes' "The Audition" shows two Asian actors practicing their Hispanic stereotypes in dialogue that's basically empty.

    Sometimes the obtuse approach works a little better. I'm still making up my mind about Kia Corthron's "Anchor Aria," acted to the hilt by Saidah Arrika Ekulona, about a semi-delirious woman in the TB ward recounting her life as a half-Chinese, half-black in the Jim Crow era. "Move! We in Texas. Move! We in Oklahoma. Move! California. It's only Chinese there — they hate Chinese," she shouts, as fragmented memories come back to her.

    Constance Congdon's "New," about two schoolgirls, one white and one Japanese-American, on the night of the 1960 election, a brief era of good feeling between U.S.-Asian wars. Jennifer Ikeda and Fiona Gallagher are outstanding as the almost grown-up but slightly ditzy teenagers, and if the play turns on the now-trite idea of America's loss of innocence in the 1960s, it does add a dimension by considering the assimilation of the Japanese-American alongside the alienation of the Vietnam War.

    This is one of many segments in which the costumes alone — in "New," it's two tasteful little early-'60s party ensembles — immediately set the scene. Some of the plays begin with an actor holding up a placard to indicate the year when the play takes plays, but thanks to costume designer Christianne Myers it's almost superfluous.

    The closing segment, Alice Tuan's "Cricket," wraps up the show by returning to the idea of the square in a story about an old Chinese man living with his memories in a little square house with a cricket in a little square cage. He is also reliving fragmented memories, remembering splinters of English poetry that he learned before the cultural revolution. A woman in work clothes and a hard hat begins to interrupt his thoughts and we sense that this old man's world is about to be cleared away, ending an era as well as an evening of theater that has quite a few thought-provoking moments.

    NOVEMBER 1, 2001

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