East West Players Kicks Off Season With Young Playwright Julia Cho’s Road Trip Story
by Saskia Vogel
Nothing sets the stage for adventure like a road trip. But as many families know, conflict can percolate in the confines of a car. By telling a quintessentially American story from a Korean family’s perspective, rising-star playwright Julia Cho puts a fresh spin on the tensions that arise when a father fails to achieve his American Dream.That family dynamic roars to life in Durango, which had its West Coast premiere last week at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theatre. The show, which kicked off the Little Tokyo company’s 42nd season, runs though Oct. 14.Cho’s work begins when 56-year-old authoritarian Boo-Seng Lee (Nelson Mashita) is fired, igniting an identity crisis. He bottles his emotions and springs a road trip on his two sons: Jimmy (Ryan Cusino), a superhero-loving, golden boy teen battling with his sexuality, and Isaac (Jin Suh), a would-be medical student whose frustrations turn to rage as he constantly falls short of his father’s expectations.As the three travel across Arizona highways and to the mountains of Colorado (minimal set dressing and large-scale projections help create the effect), family secrets rattle the locks of their dark closets, producing interchanges about pornography, comic books and Boo-Seng’s attempts at Korean cultural education. The men want to show love, but personal conflicts keep them apart as their family unravels in the absence of a wife or mother. Mashita, who said his greatest challenge with the production was channeling Boo-Seng’s severity, asserted, “The play reflects a reality for many immigrants, and people, whose dreams don’t turn out as planned.”Half an hour before the first preview on Sept. 14, Cho picked calmly at her dinner at the Japanese cafe adjacent to the theater. The playwright expressed an anthropological interest in the audience’s reactions.”I see American stories all the time where I put myself into the character’s shoes, even when there isn’t an Asian American in the narrative. With Durango, I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted people who are not Asian to step into another skin,” she said.Cho, dressed in a casual knit top and jeans, punctuated several questions with long, thoughtful pauses, laying down her chopsticks and letting her gaze, and the conversation, drift. Her composure seems to stem from her serendipitous path to playwriting and her long relationship with Chay Yew, the play’s director and her personal mentor.
Six Degrees of Playwriting
Cho grew up in the suburbs of Southern California and Arizona. She had little exposure to theater, she said, save for “bad Shakespeare” and the occasional traveling Broadway production.That changed when she was 14. On a class trip to New York City, she remembers being disappointed to be handed a ticket to John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation – until she took her seat.“Plays find you like characters do; they come to you fully formed,” she said. “Six Degrees put itself into my hands. If I hadn’t seen that play at that time, I probably wouldn’t be a playwright now.”Unlike Boo-Seng, Cho’s Korean immigrant parents did not have a singular definition for success. When she left her English Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley to pursue dramatic writing at New York University, they supported her.Cho has racked up honors in the past five years, including awards from the Williamstown Theater Festival and New Haven, Conn.’s Longwharf Theater, as well as fellowships and favorable reviews for the Southern California productions of her plays The Winchester House (2006 at the Theatre in Boston Court in Pasadena; also directed by Yew) and The Piano Teacher (this year at South Coast Repertory).Cho’s reputation caught the attention of East West Players Artistic Director Tim Dang and the support of Yew (whose credits include directing EWP’s M. Butterfly in 2004). Yew, in fact, organized the first table reading of Durango at the Mark Taper Forum, and when Cho received a fellowship to develop the play at the 2005 O’Neill Playwrights Conference, Yew came on board as director. Later that year at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, current cast members Mashita and Suh joined the project. Shortly after a 2006 run at the Longwharf Theater, EWP asked Yew and Cho to bring the new production to Downtown Los Angeles.”East West is a mainstay of Asian-American theater, and it’s a small community. Like a friend you keep bumping into, it was time for us to hang out,” Cho said.As the clock’s black hands marched toward curtain call, Cho explained her confidence: “I trust Chay completely. He has known me well for years; he stays true to the play’s essence. As an Asian male, he gets it. I have great peace of mind knowing he is in charge.”With that, Cho exited graciously so she could observe as a Los Angeles audience buckled up for Durango.Durango plays through Oct. 14, with an American Sign Language-interpreted performance Oct. 7 at 2 p.m., at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., (213) 625-7000 or eastwestplayers.org.
Bob Baker, who has been staging puppet shows for 75 years, and Charles Phoenix, known for his tours and slide shows, join forces Downtown this week for a tribute to the puppet master. Photos by Gary Leonard.
Two L.A. Icons Come Together in ‘Bob Baker: This Is Your Life!’
by Saskia Vogel
Published: Friday, August 24, 2007 6:00 PM PDT
Eight years ago, Charles Phoenix took his place on a folding chair inside the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, a discreet white box building in City West. Amidst the theater’s twinkling garlands, silver child-sized harlequins and crystal chandeliers, Phoenix lost his sense of place and time. Like the children sitting on the floor – eye level with the puppets – Phoenix was mesmerized by the musical variety show starring Bob Baker’s hand-made, singing, dancing marionettes.The aficionado of Americana had stumbled upon the country’s oldest running puppet theater, home to more than 3,000 marionettes and the workshop of 83-year-old Bob Baker, a puppeteer since age 8 and a cultural institution in his own right.Phoenix, known for his hilarious retro slide shows, Americana coffee table books and mind-bending field trip tours, made the theater a stop on his Disneyland Tour of Downtown, a trek that compared local landmarks to Magic Kingdom destinations. Naturally, the theater was “Fantasyland.” (It was doubly fitting considering Baker made the puppets for the shop windows on Disneyland’s Main Street from the 1950s to the ’70s and still manufactures a limited edition Disney marionette collection.)It is fair to say that Phoenix was in the grip of Baker’s imaginative artistry. “I wanted to do more to spread the word about this castle of creativity,” Phoenix said in a recent joint interview with Baker in the theater’s rainbow-colored party room, festooned with oversized sparkling gift bows. Now, Phoenix has done more than just “spread the word.” He approached Baker early this summer about staging a retrospective of Baker’s 75-year career. Together, the L.A. icons created a three-act family show featuring a brief narrative documentary, an hour-long vintage musical variety puppet show by the house puppeteers, and a cake and ice cream party with special performances by the master himself. Charles Phoenix Presents… Bob Baker: This Is Your Life! opens Thursday, Aug. 30 at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater and runs for four performances through Sept. 2.
Stay for the Cake
The show presents the best of Phoenix and Baker. Phoenix, whose signature performances have been seen at Downtown’s REDCAT Theater, the Getty Center and the New York Fringe Theater Festival, will host the event. He will explore Baker’s life through images from personal archives and show an 11-minute video featuring clips of Baker’s work in television and movies, including “Bewitched” and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The puppet show stars old and new creations, including dancing glow-in-the-dark skeletons, blooming saguaros and a French pussycat. Baker will also take the stage, a rarity in recent years. After each performance, audience members are invited to stay for ice cream and strawberry cake, enjoy a private show by Baker, and visit with the puppet master.Watching a performance at the theater-in-the-round that has been a destination for decades of school field trips, one can get lost in the antics of the vibrant puppets or watch the sweat glisten on the forehead of a black-clad puppeteer as his hands and feet jiggle their own concentrated dance.”We’re an unusual puppet theater,” Baker said. “Our puppeteers are exposed. Frankly, I got tired of telling the kids to go sit down when they tried to look behind the stage.”
Calling Mr. Bojangles
Though the theater is only dark on Mondays, it hasn’t had regular evening shows since the 1965 Watts riots. This Is Your Life’s three night performances nod to the early days. Baker opened the theater in 1961. With the current developments in Downtown Los Angeles, Baker and Phoenix feel the stage is set to celebrate the cultural fixture that has drawn crowds to the otherwise quiet neighborhood for nearly five decades.”We regularly have great-grandmothers bringing their grandkids here because they want to share the ‘Bob Baker Experience’ they had as children,” said Baker.As if hearkening to the older generation, Baker jumps up from his pink chair to retrieve a Bill “Bojangles” Robinson puppet, which will make a cameo in This Is Your Life. The marionette is clad in yellow and purple tails, fashioned after the vaudeville song-and-dance-man.”I made this puppet after I heard ‘I’ve Got a Song in My Soul.’ You can hear [Robinson] tap on the record,” Baker said as his nimble fingers manipulated the “airplane controls” conducting the puppet’s jolly tap dance.The show is as much a tribute to Baker’s passion for his life’s work as it is a celebration of puppetry. But don’t think of the retrospective as a signal that he is planning to retire. “I have too many ideas to stop, and I want to see the theater to its 50th anniversary,” Baker said.It’s that passion which drew Phoenix to the project.”Bob’s vision is so pure and honest, a rarity in this crazy world,” said Phoenix. “Where else are people exposed to novelty recordings and show tunes from early last century and marionettes? It blows their minds.”Then, turning to Baker with shining eyes, he added, “I just want to say, like Liza Minelli told you, ‘Oh, puppet man, I just love you!’”Charles Phoenix Presents… Bob Baker: This Is Your Life! runs Aug. 30-Sept. 1 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, 1345 W. First St., (213) 250-9995 or bobbakermarionettes.com and charlesphoenix.com. Tickets are $40.