Thursday, February 20, 2014

'Kung Fu': Signature Theatre Premieres Pleasant But Shallow Bio-Play By David Henry Hwang

Cole Horibe as Bruce Lee in 'Kung Fu'

The choreography and the elements of Chinese Opera are the real winners in King Fu, David Henry Hwang’s entertaining if shallow new play based on the life of martial arts actor Bruce Lee, now on view at the Pershing Square Signature Center. 

Kung Fu, having its delayed premiere after last season’s disappointing program of Hwang’s works (a dismal Golden Child and somewhat stronger The Dance and the Railroad, which was as much an intriguing performance piece as a play) is like the CliffsNotes version of what could have been a biting satire about the difficulties of an Asian American actor trying to break through the barriers of racism in the United States in the years following World War II. 

It seems as though Mr. Hwang, who has skirted similar issues before, just does not want to go there. So what we get is an entertaining piece of fluff that only occasionally raises social issues, as Bruce Lee is unable to grab hold of the brass ring of longed-for stardom in Hollywood, and ultimately finds his success in martial arts movies only when he returns to Hong Kong. 

Throughout the play, Mr. Lee (Cole Horibe, best known as a finalist in one of the many seasons of television’s So You Think You Can Dance) is surrounded by loving martial arts students, loving friends, a loving wife (Phoebe Strole) and a loving son (Bradley Fong, a real charmer).

The only sign of discord arises in Lee’s recollections of his cold and distant father, an actor famous for playing clown roles in the Chinese Opera.  As embodied by Francis Jue, the father is the most fully realized character in the play—a frustrated, distant, angry, opium-smoking man from whom his son was long estranged.  But even here, Mr. Hwang cannot resist smoothing things over by offering up an imagined scene in which Bruce Lee and his father’s ghost battle it out, with Mr. Lee emerging whole and triumphant.  

Storywise, Kung Fu is a gentle bio-play, a Hallmark Card sort of production about nice people being nice. Only Sonya Tayeh’s choreographed moves, well performed by the entire cast, lift the production above the ordinary. 

The one bit that comes closest to spoof is the stylized portrayal of Mr. Lee’s role as Kato, the sidekick to The Green Hornet in the short-lived television series from the mid-1960s that attempted unsuccessfully to match the success of the comic book-like Batman phenomenon. Much is made of the fact that Lee had to wear a mask as Kato in order to underplay his Asian-ness, and here, at least, Mr. Hwang makes his point—although, at the same time, one wonders why Bruce Lee's having a white wife is never raised as an issue—neither in the U. S. nor in Hong Kong.    

Under Leigh Silverman's direction, the game cast members, many of whom have had little acting experience, are all quite good at performing in front of an audience.  Certainly, they’ve got the kung fu moves down, and they display a friendly upbeat energy, often leaping across multiple roles (Jon Rua, Peter Kim, and Emmanuel Brown—who also serves as the fight captain—are especially personable). 

In the end, however, even though King Fu does make for a pleasant evening, it simply has too little to say about its subject or about the Asian American experience. 

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