LA stories: 'Soft Power,' Bimini Baths

soft-power.jpgConrad Ricamora and Francis Jue in "Soft Power." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

For years I've taken pokes at Center Theatre Group for not producing enough plays that are set in its home town. So I can't let spring pass into summer without cheerfully acknowledging that during two weeks in May, two of CTG's three main stages were occupied by plays mostly set in or around the Los Angeles area: "Soft Power" at the Ahmanson Theatre and "Die, Mommie, Die!," a Celebration Theatre production that recently closed CTG's Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Part of "Soft Power," which plays through Sunday at the Ahmanson, is actually set at the Music Center, within a few steps of where its audiences are watching it.

Not that its subject is hyper-local. "Soft Power" is hyper-international. It's about the relationship between the decline of America's democracy and the rise of China's dictatorship. But if that description makes it sound like a think-piece for the LA Times op-ed page, think again.

Most op-ed pieces aren't nearly as funny as "Soft Power." This satirical "play with a musical" is the most audacious production that CTG has nurtured since Michael Ritchie took over CTG a dozen years ago.

It has received a formidable advertising campaign, by theater standards. But if you haven't seen "Soft Power," your sense of it might be a bit hazy, because its narrative is...complicated.

It begins in LA in 2016. DHH (Francis Jue), a Chinese-American character named after the show's own writer and lyricist David Henry Hwang, is meeting with Chinese film executive Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora). Xue is hoping to enlist DHH in the creation of scripts that might help China extend its "soft power" to more American as well as Chinese screens.

The two of them, plus Xue's American girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), attend a performance of "The King and I" at the Music Center. There, Xue encounters Hillary Clinton (also Louis), who's raising money in LA for her effort to win the presidency.

We all know how well that went. Soon after Clinton's surprising defeat in the presidential election, DHH is the victim of a knifing near his home in Brooklyn - an event that mirrors a real-life crime against Hwang that occurred in 2015. In the hospital and presumably under the influence of medication, DHH hallucinates a Chinese-made musical about Xue and Hillary Clinton.

The story of this hallucinated musical-within-the play reflects aspects of "The King and I," but it's told from a future Chinese perspective. In it, the Xue character encounters a stereotyped version of 2016 America but somehow begins a chaste romance with, yes, the Hillary Clinton character -- as Anna did with the King of Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, which is set in the 1860s.

Got that so far? The structure of "Soft Power" is so surprising and innovative that, as with the experience of seeing "Hamilton" for the first time, it helps to begin with a little advance knowledge.

Another way to prepare for the style and mood of "Soft Power" would be to watch the delightful two-part YOMYOMF production of Hwang's "Yellow Face" on YouTube, based on the Hwang play that premiered at CTG's Mark Taper Forum in 2007. While its focus is less about China and more about the representation of Asians and Asian-Americans in the theater, it shares with "Soft Power" a breezy, ironic style, a plot point involving "The King and I" and a character named DHH, after the playwright. Leigh Silverman, who directed the premiere of "Yellow Face" at the Taper, is also directing the premiere of "Soft Power" at the Ahmanson.

One thing that "Soft Power" has that "Yellow Face" lacks is a brilliantly eclectic original score by Jeanine Tesori, the composer who was most recently represented at the Music Center with "Fun Home" and whose first breakthrough (but lesser) musical "Violet" is currently in a revival by Actors Co-op in Hollywood.

Tesori's music provides Ricamora and Louis with potentially star-making moments, which they perform with a pizazz that seems destined for awards. But even apart from the leads, how could I resist a score that so pithily and wittily expresses my own frustration with that peculiar but increasingly powerful institution, the Electoral College?

LA on smaller stages

Los Angeles is also the setting of several non-musical plays currently playing in our small theaters. Of these, the most ambitious project is a trilogy by Tom Jacobson that was inspired by the history of the Bimini Baths, a hot-springs-based spa. From 1903 to 1951, it occupied a spot in what is now the northeast part of Koreatown, on 2nd Street just east of Vermont.

Three separate companies are simultaneously producing the trilogy's components. Son of Semele opened "Plunge" first, not far from the Bimini site. It was followed by Rogue Machine's production of "Mexican Day." Playwrights Arena is scheduled to open the third play, "Tar," on Saturday.

mexican-day-3.jpgJully Lee and Jonathan Medina in "Mexican Day." Photo by John Perrin Flynn.

"Mexican Day" is the better of the two plays that are already open. In 1948, the Japanese-American reporter and short-story writer Hisaye Yamamoto instigates a protest against Bimini's "Mexican Day" policy, which prohibited non-whites from entering the baths until the day just before the dirty water was cleaned.

Staged by Jeff Liu (who also happens to be the director of the YouTube version of "Yellow Face," mentioned above), the play is a lively account of how activists from different communities unite to fight a common foe. Jacobson added the character of the African-American and gay activist Bayard Rustin, who was active in such protests at the time, to the Bimini protest, although the playwright hasn't confirmed that Rustin was actually there.

The character of Everett Maxwell, who was the real-life founding curator of LA's Museum of History, Science and Art (the precursor of more than one of today's LA museums), appears in "Mexican Day" as a hesitant helper in the cause and, more than 30 years earlier, in "Plunge" as a man who loses his big museum job because he molested teenagers. It's one of two intertwining stories about men who molest teenagers in "Plunge." One of the victims, a Mexican-American kid fictitiously named Zenobio Remedios, appears in all three of the plays, at different ages, played by three different actors.

The problem with "Plunge" is that it becomes somewhat confusing, as two separate stories are combined, with all of the characters played by only two actors. In "Mexican Day," four actors play small roles in addition to their main characters, but the "Mexican Day" quartet maintains a sense of clarity.

For a small-theater play set in contemporary LA, I recommend "Forever Bound," by Steve Apostolina. It begins as a comedy set in the seldom-dramatized world of LA's struggling rare-book dealers. But then it transforms into something more serious, although its concerns are still related to the theme of people who love their books. The plot twist is too surprising for me to spoil. But director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky and Apostolina engender eye-opening suspense as well as laughs, with the help of a sensational cast -- French Stewart, Emily Goss and Rob Nagle as well as Apostolina himself. It's at Atwater Village Theatre.

Finally, a few words about "Bordertown Now," at Pasadena Playhouse. This Culture Clash collage is a somewhat updated version of a 20-year-old show based on interviews about border issues, newly staged by CTG's associate artistic director Diane Rodriguez. The three permanent members of Culture Clash -- Richard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza -- are joined by Sabina Zúñiga Varela, the actress who was so powerful in Luis Alfaro's "Mojada" at the Getty Villa. She adds a dash of welcome variety to the otherwise all-male trio.

"Bordertown Now" starts strong. But it gradually loses much of its momentum and power, as jokes and possibly obscure references outnumber and sometimes undermine fresh insights. On the spectrum of recent Culture Clash productions, it's better than "SAPO" at the Getty Villa but not as good as "Culture Clash: An American Odyssey" at LATC's Encuentro festival.

Parts of the "Bordertown Now" script refer to events from the past year. But other than a one-line reference to a quote from Jeff Sessions, there is no attempt to dramatize the currently tender topic of the government's new detention policy of separating children from their parents.

When Montoya plays the nearly 86-year-old ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio. he looks and moves like Jon Stewart more than he looks like Arpaio. And his Arpaio doesn't even refer to the fact that since January he has been busily running for Jeff Flake's Arizona Senate seat against two Republican women -- unless you count a hasty "Arpaio for Congress!" line that appears to have been tacked on at the end of a scene.

The second word in the title "Bordertown Now" needs a little more attention.

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