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“Culturally we bear witness to this madness every day. We can all tell endless stories of how it makes itself known in everyday life. For example, an adult white male answers the door when a young Asian male rings the bell. We live in a culture where without responding to any gesture of aggression or hostility on the part of the stranger, who is simply lost and trying to find the correct address, the white male shoots him, believing he is protecting his life and his property. This is an everyday example of madness.
– bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions
It’s weird how so many theatre companies – particularly indies – will wind up putting on the same kind of show at the same time. It’s not just something like seven local companies all doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the same time, or the way several companies are currently producing (or in the process of producing) In the Heights. It also extends to several companies who all wind up doing similarly themed shows at the same time. I bring this up because I’ve spent the past two weeks watching a lot of shows about rich White people being rich White people.
Seriously: I saw the well-acted Sense and Sensibility at the Town Hall in Lafayette; I saw the horrible In Braunau by the SF Playhouse; I saw the at-the-very-least-well-acted (and -danced) world premiere of Barry Eitel’s Champagne by 6NewPlays; and now I’ve seen the world premiere of Two Mile Hollow by Ferocious Lotus. (The play is also simultaneously premiering at the First Floor Theater in Chicago, Artists at Play in Los Angeles, and the Mixed Blood Theatre/Theatre Mu in Minneapolis.)
What separates Two Mile Hollow from those other shows is that the “rich White people” angle is a joke. Although Hamilton famously used an entirely Black and Latinx cast in traditionally White roles to show the absence of PoC in the story of American history, it noticeably side-stepped the fact that many of its characters were slave-owners (or so I’m told – I’ve neither seen nor heard Hamilton). Two Mile Hollow takes a similar approach to the overwrought Tennessee Williams drama, casting an all-Asian cast in roles that are not only traditionally White, but their Whiteness is pointed out on a regular basis. It takes the Charles Busch approach of playing its subject matter as melodramatic.
Three-quarters of this play are brilliant scenery-chewing. It’s the one-quarter that takes itself seriously that prevents the show from being perfect.
The Donnellys are rich White people. Point in fact, they may be the richest and Whitest people you’ve ever known. Though the patriarch of the family is long dead, his Oscar-winning success casts a long shadow over his alcoholic wife Blythe, his spoiled son Joshua, and his bird-obsessed daughter Mary. When the third child, movie star Christopher, returns to the childhood home of Two Mile Hollow, he’s greeted by his family with joy. But all the Riesling in world couldn’t have prepared them for the guest he brought with him: an Asian woman!
As secrets are revealed, sanity is tested, and many glasses are broken, this Asian woman (her name’s Charlotte and maybe she’s Chinese? Pinay?) will change this family’s destiny forever.
Let me say again that when this show remembers that it’s a comedy, it is absolutely brilliant. All of the jokes land, all of the performances hit the right notes, and all of the necessary story beats are hit. The show opens with Mary (who describes herself as “worthless, self-destructive, and depressed”) imitating birds – as part of a pelican motif that sails along the outer fringes of the narrative – before being joined by her dim-witted brother Joshua, prone to a great many hissy fits. They refer to their mother as “mummy”. They refer to their dead Latina maid as “Yessica”, overemphasizing the “y” sound. The whole family refers to “Orientals” the way Mitt Romney infamously talked about those who weren’t the 1%. Glasses are broken, bird calls are made, spotlights are used ad nauseum.
And all of it is perfect. When Charlotte – the Frank Grimes to the Donnellys’ Simpsons – breaks out into a musical number about her career ambitions, it doesn’t so much come out of nowhere as it comes right on time. It brings the operatic heights of the story and performances to an appropriately operatic peak. Because when you put on a story about Asian actors behaving the way White people perform when there are specifically no other Asians around, you either go big or go home. And Two Mile Hollow goes gloriously big in all the right ways.
Except one. The character of Charlotte – Christopher’s indeterminately Asian Gal Friday/mistress – is the audience surrogate, played naturally to contrast with the bombast of her castmates. This serves the character well, even in the musical number, where she embraces the madness of her environment rather than fighting it. That number ends Act I, and that’s key: at the start of Act II, she becomes both realistic and meta, addressing the audience in a serious tone about what she wants out of life and the reality of Asian actors not receiving the opportunities of their White colleagues… and that’s where writer Leah Nanako Winkler goes wrong.
There’s an earlier scene where Joshua tells Christopher that they’re “1/18 Cherokee” and Christopher sees this as his opportunity to “play Pocahontas, but without the backlash”. That is Winkler skillfully satirizing White privilege and whitewashed casting without beating the audience over the head. When Winkler decides to drop the satire and simply make Charlotte a mouthpiece, the play goes suddenly becomes a painful lecture. What’s more, the final scenes of Charlotte lecturing the audience go on far too long – this is a show that easily could have been 90 minutes, had the 20 featuring Charlotte’s lecturing been excised.
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of shows by women and people of color that provide wonderfully fresh perspectives, but all fall into the trap of the writer using a character to go on a literal tangent that serves no purpose to the narrative and stops the story cold (other examples include Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey and Black Transgender writer Nick Mwaluko’s Waafrika 123). These are stories that need to be told, but the writers tend to serve as their own worst enemy when it comes to telling them.
It’s hard to single out any one member of the cast or crew, because they’re all genuinely exemplary. I’ve worked with Karen Offereins and Michelle Talgarow before, but that doesn’t change the fact that their performances as drunken matriarch Blythe and incestuous bird-caller Mary, respectively, have a wonderful Bluth Family quality that was a joy to watch. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Sean Fenton in a local show – incidentally, the first show I ever saw him in co-starred Karen Offereins – but I’m a fan of the swoon-inducing way he strikes a profile as conceited movie star Christopher. I can’t tell if Greg Ayers’ “Joshua” is more dumb or spoiled, but it’s a lot of fun to watch the actor go back-and-forth with it. Despite my misgivings about how Charlotte is written in the final act of the play Rinabeth Apostol gives her the right amount of heart to help we audience navigate the tornado of madness that is the Donnellys.
All of this is done under the skillful guidance of Ferocious Lotus founder Lily Tung Crystal. Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s wonderfully detailed set is a one of those beautifully detailed pieces that make you want to sleep on set just to be around that sort of fine architecture. Similarly, Devin LaBelle’s props – including a slightly inconspicuous TBA Award above the hearth – add to the scene very well. Given that Karen Offereins uses her role as Mary to make a great many bird sounds, it’s easy to overlook the actual bird sounds by Michael Kelly, but they’re also well done. And Kevin Landesman seems to have stumbled upon the one production where a spotlight can’t be overused.
A special shoutout has to go to Min Kahng and Eric Crystal for Charlotte’s show-stopping musical number that ends Act I. Charlotte actress Apostol doubles as the dance choreographer, giving the sequence a very “björk-in-‘It’s-Oh-So-Quiet’” vibe that balances the comedy with fine showmanship. And no, I haven’t forgotten Carla Pantoja’s fight choreography that shows how silly two characters can look when trying to kill one another.
This is not at all a bad play, just one that doesn’t know when to stop. It’s like Blackjack: it easily gets to 21, but makes the mistake of saying “Hit me!” one time more than it should. Its message is both important and necessary, but the way Winkel chooses to tell it loses focus as the play goes on. It’s an odd case of a pitch-perfect satire being railroaded by unnecessary talking down to the audience by their surrogate.
Other than that, it’s the only “rich White people” play I’ve seen recently that I would actually consider vital.
Two Mile Hollow is scheduled to run until the 15th of July at the Potrero Stage in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly two hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit Ferocious Lotus’s official site here.
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