With "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven," the Apollinaire Theatre Company reaffirms its reputation as the home of the area's most provocative contemporary theater. Young Jean Lee's confrontational comedy looks at racism and identity politics with an unflinching combination of humor and fury. Danielle Fauteux Jacques directs the play with a light hand, and yet elicits fearlessly transparent performances from her ensemble.
Lee has built her career around squirm-inducing experimental plays that rip open accepted assumptions around Christianity ("The Church") and race relations ("The Shipment"). "Songs of the Dragons" explores Lee's own experience with racism and stereotypes as a Korean-American, and, in keeping with Lee's style, leaves the audience feeling both amused and unsettled.
"Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven," opens in utter darkness and the audience spends the first few minutes listening to a director offering suggestions about the intensity with which one actor should slap another across the face. After a few minutes of listening, we watch a video of the repeated slaps, with the playwright as the recipient. It's a disturbing introduction: Is this passive acceptance of violence a symbol of self-hatred? Before we have a chance to let that idea sink in, the lights change and we are greeted by a perky Korean-American woman (Nicole Dalton) who delivers a speech that is one part shocking and two parts hilarious, opening with the assertion that most Asian-Americans are slightly brain damaged from having grown up with Asian parents, and culminating with the statement that "The wiliness of the Korean is beyond anything. You may laugh now, but remember my words when you and your offspring are writhing under our yoke."
As she finishes, a group of three Korean women (Liz Eng, Hyo Jeong Choi, and Kaoru Yano ) dressed in traditional schoolgirl garb, arrive to perform a ritualized dance. Their delicate demeanor is broken, however, when the Korean-American awkwardly tries to join in, and the lovely schoolgirls beat her up. Later, these exquisite characters carry on a conversation in Korean, in which the word "sex" is constantly repeated, and then their traditional dance morphs into a series of pantomimes in which the three dancers take turns miming various ways to commit suicide.
In the midst of Lee's unrelenting exploration of her own cultural stereotype, we are introduced to a white couple (Laura Menzie and Will Moore) who are struggling with their roles and expectations within their relationship. She announces that he is "sub-par" while he insists "I don't want to have a life separate from you, I want to be you!"
Lee ricochets between the white couple's romance and the Korean girls' identity issues, while also veering into asides about the creative process and the challenge for artists to come up with anything that's new. The show culminates in a speech delivered in unison by the Korean-American and the Korean girls in which Lee seems to be apologizing and explaining what we just witnessed.
While the structure of "Songs of the Dragons" is disjointed at best, Fauteux Jacques creates a sense of flow with a cast that is always believable, even in the most disturbing and discomfiting moments.