Comedy with ‘Style!’

By John Lyle Belden

If an Asian playwright and Asian actors take on Asian stereotypes, is it still offensive? Is mocking these tropes this way self-effacing, creating awareness, or both?

You might find yourself pausing between bouts of laughter to consider these questions during Mike Lew’s comical cultural exploration, “Tiger Style!” on stage at the Fonseca Theatre, directed by Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Third-generation Chinese Americans, Albert and Jennifer Chen (Sean Qiu and Kim Egan) are the products of what could be called “tiger parenting,” pushed by their parents (Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring) to excel to the point of perfection at music and STEM careers – Albert is one of the best computer coders, Jen is one of the best oncologists. But instead of super-functional adults, they grew up to be self-aware Asian caricatures.

In the tech world, Albert is passed over for promotion because he’s too good at his job, while goofball slacker Russ the Bus (Jacob Pettyjohn) is better at socializing and getting along with everyone, which boss Reggie (Cruz) sees as more valuable for a supervisor. Albert is boggled at the fact that his deferential attitude, hard work and productivity didn’t pay off, and is appalled that even his Asian employer likes the white guy more than him. The stress literally eats him up inside.

Meanwhile, Jen is dumped by her do-nothing boyfriend (Pettyjohn as another slacker) because she didn’t turn out as “exotic” as he’d hoped. She spirals at the fact her super-structured life plan is out of whack, and that she can’t even keep a man who is way beneath her. The therapist she sees (Herring) doesn’t respect her need for an immediate breakthrough, so she and her brother resolve the only way to fix things is a hard reckoning with their parents.

“Secrets will be revealed that will threaten to tear the family apart” – or not.

I won’t say where this all leads, but Cruz also plays characters named “Tzi Chuan” (pronounced Schezwan) and “General Tso.” Herring adds a Chinese Matchmaker, and self-sacrificing Cousin Chen.

Lew crafted this play so that the more serious it gets, the more silly it gets, like life-and-death moments in a Monty Python sketch. In this, Cruz’s comic flair comes into full flower, as does Herring’s improv-honed skill for rolling through situations, smiling through the absurdity. As for Qui and Egan, rarely has naive overthinking been so entertaining. Pettyjohn committing to the White stereotype is just icing on the cake.

The lessons here, I suspect, are different depending on if you are Asian-American. Still, there is a lot to draw from this look at a culture both different from and intertwined with mainstream America.

Performances run through Aug. 14 at 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis (just west of downtown), on the newly named C.H. Douglas and Gray Wealth Management Stage. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Restless dead haunt Fonseca Theatre drama

By Wendy Carson

Inspired by the recent trend of ghost investigations, a new drama, “The Brothers Paranormal,” appears on the new stage of Fonseca Theatre Company.

Delia is haunted. She is convinced that her new apartment is haunted by a Thai ghost. For the past six months she has heard whooshes, floorboard creaks, footsteps, and has now seen apparitions of a creepy young girl. While her loving husband, Felix, has not shared in any of this phenomena, he supports her decision to blow all of their savings to hire the titular service to find proof of this and hopefully restore their lives, still coming together after losing their New Orleans home to Katrina and relocating to the Midwest.

Max is haunted. The son of Thai immigrants, he and his older brother, Visarut, are just barely scraping by. Delia’s request is the first job they have attained. Max has had to leave college, his West Coast home, friends and girlfriend behind to help Visarut care for their schizophrenic mother, Tasanee. Max also worries about Visarut’s drinking problem, made worse by what their mother did.

Felix is haunted. He works as a paramedic and thought his job would be constantly saving lives. However, he feels the truth is that more often than not, he is just trying to keep them alive for a little bit longer. The ones that die under his care weigh heavy on his soul.

Can the brothers find proof of Delia’s ghost, or is her own family history of schizophrenia to blame for these manifestations? What is real? What is an illusion? Why do some cultures celebrate death and others fear it? These are among the questions posed by Prince Gomolvilas’s engrossing script.

Sean Qui is excellent as Max, running the gamut of feelings, especially towards his family. Ian Cruz is a steady presence as Visarut. Diane Tsao is charming as mother Tesanee.

Dena Toler is also in fine form as Delia, her performance putting her fright into the audience. Ansley Valentine, as Felix, delivers as a man slowly realizing he can only evade the truth for so long.

And a shuddering salute to Kim Egan as the spectre. Director (and company namesake) Bryan Fonseca uses her and the cleverly designed set to accomplish a rare feat – to make a horror stage play truly frightening. There were moments audience members were practically jumping out of their seats.

There is more to this play than the scares, of course. It fulfills the FTC objective of showing and making us consider different cultural and ethnic perspectives. But it also makes one hell of a Halloween-season experience. Performances run through Nov. 10 at FTC’s newly-remodeled Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan St. in Indy’s near-Westside. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.