Toby Berner and Milton Lim in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of The Great Leap. Photo by David Cooper.
Toby Berner and Milton Lim in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of The Great Leap. Photo by David Cooper.

Chinese basketball coach Wen Chang quotes from The Tale of Two Cities on several occasions throughout The Great Leap.  And for good reason.

In the same way that Charles Dickens’s tale covers the French Revolution between 1770 and 1794 through the lens of characters living in London and Paris, so Lauren Yee’s play covers the Chinese uprising between 1986 and 1989 through the lens of those living in Beijing and San Francisco.

Both works allude to the best of times and the worst of times; a season of light and one of darkness; the spring of hope and the winter of despair.

Ms Yee’s compelling story, revolving around basketball, is served impeccably by Meg Roe’s precise direction, with the assistance of Jasmine Chen.  As a result, there is not one weak link in this tour de force.

Heipo C.H. Leung has designed a unique minimalist set – basically, an off-white ‘screen’ painted on the floor in the centre of the BMO auditorium.  The ‘screen’ is illustrated with light, imaginatively designed by John Webber, to create countless different scenes, from a basketball court to an apartment sitting room.  It is a stunning backdrop for the cast of four skilled, agile, committed actors to inhabit.

Heipo C.H. Leung's unique minamilist set, coupled with John Webber's imaginative lighting design and Chimerik's projections creates a stunning backdrop for the cast of The Great Leap. Photo by David Cooper.
Heipo C.H. Leung’s unique minimalist set, coupled with John Webber’s imaginative lighting design and Chimerik’s projections creates a stunning backdrop for the cast of The Great Leap. Photo by David Cooper.

As Wen Chang, Jovanni Sy never once drops the ball while he ducks and dives around the liberating performance space.  With commanding presence, Sy reveals myriad aspects of life in China as well as the personal challenges faced by this faithful Communist Party member and reluctant basketball coach.

Toby Berner entertains as Chang’s brash, uncouth counterpart and long time rival, US basketball coach, Saul.  Using locker room language, he blatantly dons and discards a scruffy wig to set time frames.  So simple.  So effective.

The basketball in this game, metaphorically speaking, is a teenager called Manford.  He is a brilliant star player from a high school in San Francisco’s Chinatown and lithe, athletic Milton Lim brings him to life with refreshing honesty and ingenuity.

Manford’s quasi-cousin Connie is an important link in the story, although she appears only rarely.  However, Agnes Tong invests her with such vibrant energy that Connie soars each time she appears.  Small wonder that Tong is credited in the program as movement coach too.

The upbeat pace is further enhanced by the use of projection, by Chimerik, on to the floor and mounted wall screens.  Scenes that include some that took place in Tienanmen Square are thus powerfully brought to life.

The audience flanks the acting space on two opposite sides, almost like basketball fans of opposing teams.

However, this occasionally creates audibility issues, particularly in the opening scene when young Manford desperately begs coach Saul to include him on the team he is taking to Beijing.  Perhaps if Berner were to use sarcasm as Saul it would slow his delivery in this instance.  A minor criticism in an evening packed with emotion, mirth, irony and history.

Chinese American playwright Lauren Yee who grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown with a basketball-playing father, would be pleased to know her glorious script is so very well played by this team and that the Arts Club production scores so high.

The Great Leap by Lauren Yee. Directed by Meg Roe. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the BMO Theatre Centre (162 W 1st Ave, Vancouver) until May 19. Visit artsclub.com for tickets and information.