Oscar Madison and Felix Unger come alive on stage at the Richmond Cultural Centre – but in Asian bodies?
The Odd Couple
Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre
Directed by Raugi Yu
Produced by Joyce Lam
July 17-27, 2008
Richmond cultural Centre, Richmond
August 13-21, 2008
Roundhouse Performance Centre, Vancouver
I swear I could hear the voices and body actions of the famous and acclaimed actors Tony Randall or Jack Lemmon as Felix, or Jack Klugman or Walter Matthau as Oscar in the well-loved play or tv show. But holy cow, they are in Asian bodies on stage!
“The script and the writing is very strong,” says director Raugi Yu, when I asked him if he or the actors had studied the movie or videos of the play or TV show. “The actors are wonderful in it…. at one point I asked them if they wanted to go with accents, and they really got into it. It just flowed.”
Five Asian men and one Caucasian man speak in New York accents, playing a Neil Simon play for a Vancouver audience. Felix is played as a new immigrant to North America and represents more traditional Asian traditions vs Oscar the multi-generational North American born Asian who is more North American and consequently the slob.
It's a bold vision put forward by producer Joyce Lam, who actually
called Neil Simon's lawyers to ask if they could translate the classic
play into Chinese language for sur-titles and change some of the words
to fit the transposed Asian immigrant theme.
“They didn't care that we were translating it, but they wouldn't let us
change the words.” said Lam who is very proud of this production.
They boys meet regularly for their poker game, and it is in this setting that the drama unfolds. Heck, it could be almost be mah jong… but then they would have too many for a foursome. As each character walks on stage, a different type of Asian music announces their arrival. Traditional Chinese for Felix, Japanese pop for Oscar. Bad Asian karaoke for another character. Rock 'n' Roll for the White guy. It's a different twist, but it helps to add character layers and remind the audience that a very different “Odd Couple” is being presented.
The acting is solid by Ron Yamauchi as Oscar, and Jimmy Yi as Felix. These actors have the skills to perform the characters, but Asian actors never get to play such roles because traditionally they are not cast for traditionally “white” characters. But if you live in North America, most of the roles become supporting characters or stereotyped cliches of Asians. Bravo to Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre for purposely taking a classica Broadway play and re-visioning it for a potentially large pan-Asian audience in Metro-Vancouver.
Carmine Bernhardt and Lissa Neptuno play the sexy English neighbors upstairs, named Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon. These two characters help create tension between Oscar and Felix and highlight the different attitudes not only between traditional and multi-generational values towards dating, but also between marriage and divorce. Bernhardt and Neptuno bring a vital energy to their performances with their flirtations and silly giggles. They act coy and suggestively in a way that no man could resist. You almost wish you could be on stage with them, with the attention they pay to Oscar and Felix.
Bravo to Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre for pushing the racial boundaries of Vancouver theatre once again. With limited resources, VACT is saying “Why can't we do this?” and turning colour blind casting and perceptions on it's head.
I look forward to VACT's future presentation of Rogers & Hammerstein's musical set in San Francisco's Chinatown, “Flower Drum Song”, which broke down racial stereotypes about Asians while reinforcing others.
Check out the latest trailer for The Odd Couple on YouTube, filmed during rehearsals for the upcoming Richmond production.