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by Simon Johnston
Gateway Theatre, Studio B
May 3-13

Gateway artistic director Simon Johnston has struggled to make his theatre relevant to its Richmond audience.  Although located smack in the middle of the largest Chinese community in the region, the Gateway attracts a mostly Caucasian crowd.  And this year’s bland mainstage shows, like Brigadoon, Homeward Bound and Hot Flashes, hardly speak to anyone’s issues.

So Johnston has used the smaller Studio B to stir things up.  The recent Ali & Ali and the Axes of Evil was potent political agitprop, critiquing the “war on terror” and Canada’s hypocritical attitudes towards immigrants.

Rice Rockets & Yacht People, written by Johnston himself and directed by Barbara Tomasic in the intimate Studio, takes a close look at the issue of absentee Chinese-Canadian parents who leave their teens home alone in Richmond while they go off to China on business.  The play hits some very hot buttons in a brave examination of cultural attitudes and their potential social fallout in phenomena like street racing.  Unfortunately, it totally falls apart in the second act.

The rice rockets of the title are the fast cars raced by young Asian men like Leonard Lee (Nick Ko), “number one son” of wealthy businessman Ken (Raugi Yu) and wife Barb (Laara Ong).  The first act traces Leonard’s journey from disaffected 14-year-old to an angry, alienated, dope-smoking, 18-year-old rapper whose only interest is powering up the Honda Civic dad bought him for high school graduation, and driving it fast.

All the blame is rather unsubtly laid at the feet of the parents.  Entrepreneurial Ken, obsessed with making money and scornful of Canadian passivity and over-dependence on government, spends his time in Shanghai while Barb, faced with her son’s rebelliousness, locks herself in her room or joins her husband in China.

We’re told all this by Leonard’s delightful, imaginative younger sister, Winifred (Emily Piggford in a lovely performance).  But just when the story of the teenage kids is getting interesting, Johnston takes the play off on another tack altogether, presenting a ludicrous hodgepodge of everything from jokes about theatre to racial stereotyping to blackmail.

Winifred and Leonard virtually disappear from the second act.  Instead, we get an unbelievable confrontation between the parents and Roberta (Dawn Petten), one of Ken’s employees.  They gratuitously exchange racist arguments—Chinese people are greedy, white people are lazy—based on a ridiculous dramatic scenario that provides excuses to introduce a broad variety of issues.  Petten and Yu make the best of what they’re given, but the credibility just gets drained right out of the play.

It’s too bad because there is a powerful and important play waiting to be finished at the end of that first act.

Jerry Wasserman



last updated: Tuesday, May 9, 2006 2:19 PM
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