A show that's cracked up on purpose, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is an identity crisis in crisis, one of the few "wrecks" worth seeing. It needs polish and an emotional hook, but for now, it's enough to watch an artist (un)tie things together.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is a show born of confusion: a Korean-American narrator (Becky Yamamoto) is trying to come to terms with her culture, and winds up losing herself even more in a messy, experimental play. Given that the disconnect is purposeful and that Young Jean Lee succeeds in confusing the message and both discomforting and cracking up the audience, this is one of the few "wrecks" worth seeing. However, while hybrid theater is different from, say, a hybrid car, this show could've used a light tune-up: exploring artistic possibilities is nice, but improving on them is nice, too. The comedy works, but Yamamoto's dramatic confession isn't believable, nor is the final scene's test-tube emotion (i.e., emotion generated by the circumstance rather than the character).
So okay, the characters--a sardonic Korean-American, a trio of giggly Koreans, and two deadpan White people--become tools of the director's expression rather than living beings. That's not a terrible thing. But the show is so focused on disconnecting things--a task which the myriad forms of theater helps to accomplish--that at times it makes the text monotonous. Young Jean Lee tries to escape into her dozens of scenes (and her violent cultural satire), but the shallow emotion makes the work unpolished: more performance than performance art.
The other place that Lee's direction lags behind in is the use of space. The audience enters through a narrow corridor of traditional Chinese mythological paintings, illuminated by the subtle glow of green, white, red, and pink paper lanterns. We turn a corner and walk over a carpet of pebbles, only to find traditional seating on the other side. Eric Dyer's design is fantastic--his set looks like a modernist's dojo, all bare wood under the stark glare of several thin bars of light--but all that beautiful space, onstage and off, is wasted. The play addresses much of its commentary to the audience--particularly the non-minorities--and the message would be more confrontational if the audience weren't so insulated.
Unable to refrain from explaining the show's message, at one point Lee has a hyper-modern version of the classic Greek chorus appear. Dressed in silk robes, they interrupt the middle of a scene between the two White outsiders to pronounce--in unison--that they don't know what the show's about, and that they don't know what the two White people are in it. After some exposition, the Korean actors leave, and the White actors, as if nothing has happened, start their scene over again, a lengthy-one act that begins like David Ives' start-stop-and-repeat piece, "Sure Thing," and ends like some of John Patrick Shanley's early, relationship-scarred work (think "Women of Manhattan"). When the two finally agree to get psychological help, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven ends--on a note totally unrelated to the show (though that assumes there is a "show").
Sure, there's missing emotion and a lack of polish, but this ending is a brilliant way to (un)tie things together, and for whatever else Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven might be (or try not to be), it's an entertaining piece.
HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances: Thursday-Sunday @ 8:30
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.