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This year's New York Asian American International Film Festival included films such as Hong Kong's Pastry, China's Li Tong, and the Philippines' Hubad.
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The East West Players' faithful adaptation of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club outshines its famed movie cousin.
I've avoided reading and watching the Joy Luck Club for years. Maybe I've read too much Frank Chin or experienced the rancor of one too many Amy Tan haters, but I've held off. Despite my evasiveness, I knew I had to watch the East West Players' take on the famed story.
Thinking the play's target audience would be people who have seen the movie or read the book, I was concerned that I would miss out on subtle details that Joy Luck fans would eat up. After watching EWP's very choppy Be Like Water last month, I was worried that I would have a difficult time keeping up with all the converging, multi-generational stories. I wondered how the scenes would transition with a cast of 11 playing over 40 different characters spanning 8 individual stories across many different locales -- especially given the physical limitations of theater.
I came away pleasantly surprised and impressed. Watching the East West Players' adaptation of The Joy Luck Club inspired me to finally watch the film and skim through the book. The play is less of a melodramatic tearjerker, which, in my book, makes it triumph over the movie. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera did a masterful job, using creative ways to transition from scene to scene, from generation to generation, without any lapse. The strong performances made sure that nobody would be lost.
The first aspect of the play that really grabs you is the beautiful set crafted by John H. Binkley. On the left side of the stage is a large, vertical scroll that unfurls across the stage floor. The scroll serves not just as a gorgeous piece of aesthetic background, but displays each scene's chapter title and main character's name via projection. This keenly helps the audience keep track of which characters the actors are playing when the scenes change. The scroll even displays lyrics for a brief musical number.
Another impressive element is that every piece of the play's original score, written by Nathan Wang, is performed live by the actors themselves. I appreciate the play's more measured use of music that avoids overly sentimental, tear-inducing themes.
The heart and soul of the story revolves around conflicted mother-daughter relationships. The relationships are cleanly expounded on, with a lot of reminiscing followed by reconciliation. Waverly (Celeste Den), a chess prodigy, quits playing because Lindo (Karen Huie) takes too much credit for her daughter's skills. Lena (Katherine Lee) recalls her mother Ying-Ying (Deborah Ping) becoming emotionally unstable when recalling her previous marriage. Rose (Jennifer Chang) remembers how the accidental drowning of her younger brother caused her mother An-Mei (Emily Kuroda) to lose her faith in God. The only relationship that doesn't come full circle is the one between Jing-Mei (Elaine Kao) and her recently deceased mother Suyuan (Cici Lau), who recounts her stories in flashbacks. The performances are varied and strong. Gilmore Girls fans will recognize Kuroda, the opinionated mother of Lane Kim. Kuroda's emotional scene where she recalls her lost child is particularly poignant. I also appreciated Kao's honest and sensitive performance as Jing-Mei in the initial and final monologue/address to the audience.
The representation of men in The Joy Luck Club has been a point of contention for many. Perhaps the biggest complaint from angry asian men (that have probably read one too many Frank Chin essays) is how the film portrayed Asian males in an unflattering and unsympathetic light. Perhaps Rivera downplayed those aspects to avoid controversy, but the negative portrayals are non-existent in the play. Lin Xiao (played by Russell Wong in the film), the cheating, wife beating ex-husband of Ying-Ying doesn't appear. The male characters are relegated to the background, merely used as plot devices, as it should be in the case of a story about mothers and daughters. After watching both play and film, I certainly didn't feel angry or emasculated.
There are several notable differences and additions that further differentiate the film and theater adaptations. In the play, Rose's relationship with her estranged husband Ted follows the novel's conclusion. Lin Xiao is only briefly mentioned in the play. June is accompanied by her father in the final scene. A musical scene not in the movie, Ying-Ying's childhood encounter with the Moon Lady (Edward Gunawan), makes the production more colorful and makes beautiful use of the scroll. Another added scene shows An-mei encouraging Ying-Ying to be more forward with the man that would become her husband, while making fortune cookies. The ensuing exchange is endearingly humorous. In comparison to the film, the play cuts back on the melodrama while keeping the humor intact. The infamous scene where Waverly's American fiancé Rich (David Stanbra) unintentionally offends Waverly's mother's cooking by being blissfully ignorant of Chinese table manners remains (dis)tastefully intact.
The cast exercises restraint in their performances, avoiding over-acted scenes enhanced by tear-inducing music. This production stands as an outstanding adaptation that emphasizes the book's best points without compromising its depth. The intimate theater performance takes away from the story's mythic exoticism; this makes the story more grounded in reality, and it places more emphasis on the characters as opposed to exotic backgrounds. EWP's Joy Luck Club is a more faithful adaptation of Tan's original story that eschews the sometimes overwrought melodrama of the film. It will please both fans of the book and those that have never read the book or seen the movie. You can't go wrong with any of the three mediums because... lady luck has successfully struck thrice.
East West Player's run of The Joy Luck Club has been extended through December 21.
Date Posted: 11/28/2008