The Studio Theatre is now Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theatre
At the Victory Gardens Biograph Studio Theater
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—There is a double helping of good news from the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. First, the company is opening its new Studio Theater, a modern 116-seat space on the second floor. Second, it’s christening the theater with an intriguing new play called “Year Zero.”
The new theater is more upscale than the confining and minimalist performing spaces typical of a studio theater. The seats are comfortable, the sight lines perfect, and the stage space ample enough to accommodate a large and detailed set. The intimate site is just right for a four-character domestic drama like “Year Zero.”
“Year Zero” is part of a new Victory Gardens program born of last year’s Ignition Festival. The festival was dedicated to “Emerging playwrights of Color,” all less than 40 years old. From the 120 submissions, the theater selected six plays, further culled to the two plays that comprise the early schedule for the 2009-2010 season. “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” by Latino writer Kristoffer Diaz opens in the Victory Gardens main stage October 5.
Dramatist Michael Golamco sets “Year Zero” in Long Beach, California, in 2003. It’s a typical immigrant play, but with a difference. In most immigrant stories, the main conflict emerges from the clash between the values of the older generation, usually parents with their roots in the customs and traditions of the old world, and their offspring, breathing the freedom and opportunity of the new world and rebelling against the constraints of a society they find distant and outmoded.
But in “Year Zero” all four characters are young people, 16-year old Vuthy, his older sister, Ra, a neighbor gang banger named Han, and Ra’s Chinese boyfriend, Glenn. An older adult does cast a long shadow over the characters, Vuthy and Ra’s recently deceased mother, a widow who walked barefoot out of the horrors of Cambodian genocide in the 1970’s to give birth to Ra in a refugee camp in Thailand and subsequently made her way to America. Her absence devastates Vuthy, a loner who withdraws into confiding his thoughts and emotions to a skull he stores in a kitchen cookie jar.
Some of the narrative refers to racism and prejudice within the Asian communities in Long Beach. Vuthy is hassled by Samoan bullies at school. Glenn is Chinese, apparently a culture at the top of the pecking order, or so Glenn’s off stage mother believes. The woman callously treats Ra like an invisible woman, reflecting her hostility to her son taking up with a mere Cambodian. Vuthy in turn scorns Glenn for his western name (he is infuriated by the double “n”) and Glenn’s general preppie lifestyle. Vuthy takes heat from Cambodians who don’t think he looks Cambodian enough and from non-Cambodians who look at him as too Cambodian.
The play is a slow starter. The hour-long first act doesn’t accomplish much more than introduce the characters. The act could use an infusion of energy and some tightening. In the second act Golamco hits his stride. The intensity increases, especially in Han’s relation to Ra and Vuthy. Han has his own demons to face in an upcoming encounter on the streets that could mean death or prison or deportation (Han has already served some time).
The narrative core of the play is Ra, trying to control her moody and difficult brother, juggle romantic entanglements with Han and Glenn, and keep her own life on track. By the end of the play relationships have been solidified or terminated and the conclusion, if not happy, is hopeful.
The acting at first seemed a little artless, but either I adjusted or the performers got better because the reality of each performance turned totally credible. All four performers are Asian and “Year Zero” may be their biggest exposure in local theater. That alone justifies the production.
Credit must go to Andrea Dymond for extracting such solid performances from her ensemble—Allan Aquino (Glenn), Tim Chiou (Han), Joyee Lin (Vuthy), and Jennifer Shin (Ra). The actors probably don’t get many opportunities to shine in a drama rooted in their own life experience and they have seized the moment.
The opening night audience was well populated by Asian spectators who must have been happy and proud to witness a play that speaks to their history and culture. But white viewers should find the play a learning experience as Golamco recalls the monstrous killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, as well as examining the ethnic prejudices that many Asian immigrants carried with them from the old world to the new. And there is the ongoing problem of balancing a Cambodian background with the demands and temptations of American culture.
The first-rate physical production begins with the authentic apartment interior designed by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod, which accommodates an automobile mock-up that operates at the side of the stage. There is also commendable work by Frances Maggio (costumes), Mary Badger (lighting), and Kyle Irwin (sound).
So, once it gets rolling, “Year Zero” is instructive sociology, absorbing history, a powerful family drama, and a double-barreled love story involving a triangle of Ra, Han, and Glenn. Permeating the story are the heroism and survival instincts of the deceased mother. Not a bad package for the debut of a promising new theater space.
“Year Zero” plays through October 18 at the Victory Gardens Studio Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $37 to $48. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. Sept. 2009Contact Dan at email@example.com