Arts & Culture

The cost of love explored in Arts Club production

By Lorraine Graves

Published 5:01 PDT, Thu May 2, 2019

There are two stand-outs in Arts Club’s skilled production of “The Great Leap.”

One of them, a floor. And the other, Richmond’s own Jovanni Sy.

The play by Pulitzer-prize winner Lauren Yee—who also wrote “King of the Yees” which played at Gateway Theatre the season before last— spans two continents and two decades with a cast of four and a seemingly plain, white floor between two ranks of audience seating.

Despite its great breadth, the play is intimate, an exploration of the cost of love. It shows that love can be complicated and it can be hidden, but it is almost at the root of life decisions.

It starts with mist over what looks like a plain skating rink, a white rectangle set between the two ranks of audience seating either side.

Milton Lim plays Grade 12 student Manford, who loves basketball and was raised in North America by a mother who refused to teach him Mandarin. Manford wants to be on a university team headed for an exhibition game in Beijing scheduled for June of 1989.

We later realize it was to keep her son safe. She escaped the People’s Republic of China at great risk to herself and to keep him safe, she refused to teach him her language, to keep him North American, and away from the homeland that was no longer safe for her. All acts of deep love.

The older, adopted cousin of the young player, played by Agnes Tong, shows what an actor with a full palette of skills can do even with a smaller part. As Connie, Tong is vibrant and clear. Her relationship with this kid from down the hall who sleeps on her family’s couch, for now, speaks of a slightly older sister’s protective love, with push-pull of any sibling relationship, whether genetic or chosen.

Toby Berner plays the basketball coach who pays the price for loving the game more than his family. The coach uses foul language and sexual idioms that confuse the Chinese government interpreter assigned to him, At their first meeting, decades before their second encounter, in the days when China had little contact with outside cultures and languages, there is much humour at the misunderstandings and the editorializing Sy’s interpreter must employ to avoid offending his Chinese bosses, the hosts of the first visit.

It is the interpreter, played by Jovanni Sy, who is the lynch-pin that ties the play together, both in Yee’s writing and with Sy’s acting. At one point, the stage is empty save Sy. He is silent. The audience watches rapt. He has us in the palm of his hand.

At the post-show reception, Sy’s performance was mentioned as the stand-out by other audience members. To stand out in such a shining cast and production takes skill, experience and perhaps wisdom. Sy has it in spades.

And, throughout this play, just when your heart is torn in two, Yee weaves in a bright bolt of humour while still keeping everything on track.

While this play deals with serious topics, it is well-peppered with laugh-out-loud moments. Some are the ridiculous profanities the coach uses to give his players what he calls a “pep talk.”

There is one plot point in “The Great Leap” that is a little too easy, particularly for a country of 1.3 billion people. But I remind myself, it is not a documentary; it is entertainment. And, entertainment it is. With passion, humour, and love, “The Great Leap” educates our hearts and our minds about the long tentacles of the past.

The other stand-out in this production, is the floor or rather, Chimerik’s special lighting effects on the flat stage surface. A plain white floor is transformed as, in the darkened room, the set is drawn with ribbons of light.

Precise illumination traces a wide paint line to outline the key and all the distinctive lines of a basketball court. Not merely scanning lasers that fade, these arrays of unwavering lights remain lit throughout each scene.

Each time a scene switches to a basketball court and the line drawing starts, a wave of anticipatory delight sweeps through the audience. The light writing is slow enough to be a process but perfectly timed to be fast enough that it doesn’t break the flow of the performance.

(In science, a chimera is a blend, a mix, and that’s just what Chimerik represents, a blend of art and technology.)

At other points, the lines set the scene aided by the minimal use of a bench and a couple of upholstered folding chairs. Sometimes, it was just a simple rectangle of white lines on the floor.

When Sy’s character experiences life—and the Chinese authorities—closing in on him, the simple stage transforms, no longer a basketball court but his apartment overlooking Tiananmen Square. As he stands there, fear gripping him, the rectangle closes in, forcing Sy’s character to step into the ever-smaller space as he anticipates the knock on the door.

The basketball moves look real, the ball handling and passes spot on. Actor Tong is also the choreographer and movement coach. In this case, good choreography well-learned looks like the instantaneous moves of basketball players when, in reality, each action is as choreographed as a fight scene. Each actor’s moves speak of reality.

All the acting and writing is superb. For example, in a four-person conversation, where each riffs off the other with timing that speaks of skill and precision, Yee’s writing shines as do the actors’ abilities. She says this play is inspired by events from her father’s life and (short-lived) basketball career.

Arts Club’s Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre in the Olympic Village, offers a flexible and intimate, 243 seat, setting for professional theatre. Configured for this performance as an alley format stage, in the same style as Pacific Theatre, the venue worked and worked well. It demands careful blocking to make sure every part of the audience has a good view of the action, but particularly in this case, it mimicked the bleachers of a gymnasium, though in much greater comfort. The sight lines and audio are top-notch.

A note about the lobby. Finally, a theatre with a lobby big enough for the audience with enough washrooms that women don’t spend the intermission standing in line. (The only complaint is that there is no shelf in the stalls to set anything down, like a program or purse. One has to use the floor.)

The sound design created a believable atmosphere. Blended with the projected images and side-lighting from either end of the stage, it was easy to suspend our disbelief and become engrossed in the action and the locale.

One warning in this production is the strobing lights that add accent in a few places. Strobes can be a problem for less than three per cent of people with epilepsy. In fact, The Epilepsy Foundation says, “Generally, flashing lights most likely to trigger seizures are between the frequency of 5 to 30 flashes per second (Hertz). The likelihood of such conditions combining to trigger a seizure is small.”

I predict light writing to make a set, the way Chimerik does it, will really catch on.

And spoiler alert, loves sometimes does win in this play but not in the way one expects.

The Great Leap was absolutely the last play pinned down for the 2018/19 as the playwright’s agents wanted to be sure it opened in New York first.

In March 2018, the Big Apple saw well-known American actor BD Wong in Sy’s role for this critically-acclaimed play. It freed the way for Arts Club to obtain the rights for Yee’s new work. Because theatre companies have to plan so far in advance, it isn’t common to have something this fresh and new from an author of Yee’s stature to have its Canadian debut so hot on the heels of the New York one.

When it comes to the set, all the design elements, the writing, and in particular, the acting, Arts Club’s production of “The Great Leap” proves less is more, so very much more, than the sum of its parts.

“The Great Leap” runs through May 19 at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre, 162 West 1st Avenue,Vancouver. Allow extra time to find parking if not using transit. (Walking distance from Olympic Village Skytrain Station on the Canada Line.)

Click for tickets.

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