KPBS AIRDATE: November 16, 1994
One of the major journeys of a lifetime is a search for identity, Usually, the quest begins in adolescence. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Program X offerings of Plays by Young Writers ’94. Two eighteen year-old winners of the tenth annual statewide competition grapple with their place in society. Both of them, like most of us, are hyphenates. Andy Lowe, a native San Diegan, is Chinese-American. Christopher McNeil, from Central California, is a Catholic-Jewish hybrid. In their plays, one is obsessed with his place in-between two cultures; the other takes a humorous route through the maze of religions. Both move effortlessly from dreams and fantasy to reality, with heavy imagery transported from childhood doctrine.
McNeil’s piece, “God and Poker,” is satirical, irreverent and occasionally droll. His imaginary visit to the Pope’s kitchen, hilariously enacted by Michael Angelo Castellana, is a hoot. His poker game between Christ, Buddha, Mohammed and Krishna, where everyone lies and bluffs, is extremely imaginative. Director Nonnie Vishner has played up the broad humor, but the piece still needs a lot of polish and refinement to be taken seriously. Plays about faith and religion run the risk of becoming preachy, and this one succumbs at times. Its message supports constant questioning rather than blind faith, but its old theater tricks are in obviously young hands.
“The Cultural Hyphen,” Andy Lowe projects a real voice, and director Diane Sadak has found some thrilling and inventive ways to amplify that voice. This is one of the most thought-provoking pieces and elaborate productions I’ve seen from the Young Playwrights. Magnificent costumes and well-tuned martial arts moves bring to life the interwoven tales of a contemporary, highly assimilated California kid and the ancient Chinese Monkey King. At the center is Peter James Smith, an actor who just keeps getting better, more focused, more believable with every role. Fresh from a chilling performance in “Porcelain” at Diversionary Theatre, Smith captures all the angst of adolescence and Asian-American identity. His moves are magnificent.
Speaking of moves, it doesn’t get any more physical in the theater than “Turbo Tanzi,” a wrestling musical now running at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Written by Claire Luckham in 1978, the so-called musical (with only a handful of tuneless tunes) is a feminist response to the rough-tough pub-shows of England.
Set entirely in a wrestling ring, the play chronologues the growth and development of Tanzi, a woman who’s battered and beleaguered by her beastly parents, a monstrous friend, a lecherous school psychiatrist (Dr. Grope), and her macho, pro-wrestler husband, Dan Rebel. Each of her conflicts is played out as one round of a wrestling match. In the final bout, Tanzi goes head to head — literally — with her husband, played by Tyler Mane, who happens to be the 6’10”, 300 pound Universal Wrestling Federations’ Grand Champion.
The themes are serious, but silliness abounds. Everyone — from the director Doug Jacobs to the ringside music and sound folks — seems to be trying way too hard. But there are a few bright spots: the look of hunky Tyler Mane; the spunk and credibility of Laurie Wilkins, in the barely credible title role; the fabulous singing voice of Vanessa Townsell-Crisp; and the sheer choreographed physicality of the fights.
I don’t happen to relish wrestling; for me, it’s more contrived than theatrical. And so is “Turbo Tanzi.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.