Andrea Yu and Milton Lim in the Gateway Theatre production of Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees. Photo by David Cooper.
Andrea Yu and Milton Lim in the Gateway Theatre production of Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees. Photo by David Cooper.

A welcome and needed viewpoint, King of the Yees features some great acting, but its story is a challenge.

Billed as “a madcap adventure of family and cultural identity”, Richmond’s Gateway Theatre is presenting the Canadian premiere of fast-rising American playwright Lauren Yee’s cultural comedy.

The play begins as two actors, playing father and daughter, enter against Pam Johnson’s imposing wall of red.  As another man walks on stage a woman in the audience commands the action to stop. Discovering she is the playwright, it is the story of herself and her father that was beginning to unfold onstage, and her real-life father who interrupted the action on stage.  Thus begins a giggle inducing meta- experience, as the two actors confront their real-life inspirations.

As act one unfurls, more people pop-out of the audience talking about their views of Chinese culture and representation. They also help explain the history of the male dominated House of Yee, one of many Chinatown social groups that do community service. As daughter and father bicker, the thespians are sent backstage for a series of funny sketches about being an Asian actor.

As the play progresses, the interruptions become more surreal, including a lion dance, but it begins to fatigue as there are no stakes. Things appear to be happening randomly, and the backstage actors appear to be forgotten.

Helping to raise the stakes somewhat, in act two the father disappears and his daughter is sent on a quest to find him by a variety of characters. But while many of these encounters are funny, there is little point. Who are these people, where did they come from, and why are they making her do this? What happened to the play that was being performed before the father interrupted? Was Lauren writing and directing it, since no one else seemed to mind the play getting stopped? Why did one audience member who joined them on stage never go back to his seat?

While the story could be surreal or a dream, there is no distinction between the dream state and reality. As a result, coupled with the unanswered questions, it all becomes frustrating.  Even the father’s disappearance is akin to getting lost in a mall, and the daughter’s quest feels arbitrary and easy. As the stakes here are low, it is hard to care.

Fortunately, the cast is brilliantly inventive under Sherry J. Yoon’s direction.

Raugi Yu is effortlessly funny, Donna Soares plays a variety of hugely quirky characters that always delight, and Milton Lim has a winning charm and playful enthusiasm. Gateway Theatre’s artistic director Jovanni Sy plays the father with an earnest warmth, adding heart to the story. Andrea Yu, as daughter Lauren, has a tender curiosity about what is happening, adding some gravitas to the silliness.

The cast is first rate, and often very funny, and Pam Johnson’s production design is grand. And while Gateway Theatre has to be admired for a production featuring modern Asian viewpoints, King of the Yees is ultimately diminished by a story that is less than involving.

King of the Yees by Lauren Yee. Directed by Sherry J. Yoon. A Gateway Theatre production by special arrangement with the Goodman Theatre. At the Gateway Theatre (6500 Gilbert Rd, Richmond) until October 22. Visit http://gatewaytheatre.com for tickets and information.

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