A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Anyone familiar with Mr. Hwang's plays (M. Butterfly, Golden Child, Yellow Face, Chinglish) wil understand what inspired him to write a play about international martial arts legend Bruce Lee. The American born but Hong Kong raised Lee's all too short life (he died in 1973 at age 32) is ripe for a new take on themes propelling all his work: issues of Asian-American identity and assimilation and the conflicts of Eastern and Western values that are often at the heart of familial tensions.
The current world premiere took years to come to fruition. The playwright first had a musical in mind, but realized that martial arts moves and singing didn't work well together. But using the grace and physicality of martial arts to illustrate plot highlights as songs usually do was another matter. The resulting dance-play or dance-ical is a visually stunning enterprise.
Unlike the groundbreaking Contact which relied entirely on dancing to create three wordless playlets, Kung Fu is a bio-drama, complete with dialogueu. But despite the imprimatur of our most successful Chinese-American playwright, Sonya Tayeh's superbly executed muscular choreography built around Bruce Lee's famous kung fu moves and cha-cha skills upstage the play.
That's not to say that Mr. Hwang doesn't give us an insight into Bruce Lee, the man. He has created an informative portrait of a driven man — a gifted martial arts practitioner and teacher, a man wildly ambitious and fiercely determined to be more than his father and to change the image of Asian males as lacking masculinity. The only problem is that it lacks the originality and impact of the visual elements.
The play is structured to follow Lee's personal and professional life in sequential order. It introduces us to Lee when he's a philosophy student in Seattle and also leads a martial arts class and meets Grace (a lovely performance by Phoebe Strole) the love of his life. Lee's fortunes zoom with a move to Hollywood where he became famous as Kato in the Green Hornet series and actors like James Coburn and Steve McQueen became his students and friends. (Both Coburn and McQueen were pall bearers at Lee's second funeral in Seattle).
Besides the dance-movement sequences that intermittently illustrate and highlight the narrative, the conventional structure is interspersed with dreamlike appearances of Lee's father Hoi-Chuen (the excellent and wonderfully graceful Francis Jue), a singer with the Cantonese Opera. These scenes fill in details about Lee's childhood and the rebellious teen years that prompted his family to send him to America to study and make his way.
Both the realistic and expressionistic scenes serve the playwright's aim to create a portrait of a charismatic but complex man rather than just a nuts and bio-drama. Hwang reveals the man's intensive drive and philosophical bent in every scene. And he has made astute choices about what aspects of Lee's life to include. Despite Lee's untimely early death, it makes sense to end the play at a critical turn-in-the-road moment.
However, since Kung Fu falls within the genre of Dance-Play, it's the dance part of the play that makes it a dynamic and truly exciting theatrical two hours. This is also true for the performances, including the show's star.
Cole Horibe, a sensation on So You Think You Can Dance, is indeed sensational in the dance-movement sequences. Unlike the more seasoned Francis Ju who brings the required nuance and grace to the role of Hoi-Chuen, Horibe, who's making his stage debut, still falls short of that depth in his portrayal of Lee. On the other hand, this is a demanding role and Horibe has his lines down pat and may deepen his interpretation during the run that's already been extended by two weeks beyond the announced schedule.
Credit for making the story work as well as it does and insuring the authenticity and eye-popping beauty of the production belongs to the always inventive director Leigh Silverman and her design team. The replay of an episode from the Green Hornet series and The Warrior are not only beautiful but funny. A Chinese Opera scene is made even more breathtaking by Anita Yavich's ravishing costumes.
If you want more details about Bruce Lee, you can check out his biography at Wikipedia, or better still, attend the Signature's The Bruce Lee Film Series that the Signature is presenting in conjunction with Kung Fu. The screenings include Enter the Dragon on February 25th), the documentary I Am Bruce Lee on March 24) and a still to be announced film on March 31st. Tickets are $8 for Signature subscribers and $13 for non-subscribers.