The nationally acclaimed experimental playwright Young Jean Lee defies expectations in every way imaginable in her 2006 multidisciplinary satire “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,” a mashup of ultraweird sketch comedy scenes involving song, dance, dialogue and exaggerated faux violence.
“Songs,” a belated West Coast premiere presented by the Crowded Fire Theater Co. and Asian American Theater Co., starts in the dark with the voice of a filmmaker directing an actor to slap an actress.
When the lights finally come up, playwright Lee’s vulnerable face appears on the back wall in a video of the scene we’ve just heard — she’s getting thwacked endlessly by an invisible hand. What a provocative introduction! What will this play be about?
But except for one brief comment later on, there’s neither a reference to that opening scene — and no specific follow-up to the intriguing questions it implies — nor a narrative or discernible structure.
The ever-so-audacious Lee aims to upend all our politically correct notions about racist stereotypes and Asian culture. She’s exploring “minority rage” in all its permutations — inner-directed, outer-directed, every-which-way-directed.
Three nameless characters, of sorts, emerge: a young Korean-American woman (Cindy Im) who challenges the assumptions of the presumably all-white audience. (As it happened, on opening night the audience was largely Asian-American. But Lee’s just as quick to skewer Asian expectations.)
One scene within the 70-minute piece, about a daughter in conflict with her tyrannical parents, is performed entirely in an Asian language (maybe more than one, as the actresses themselves come from various Asian backgrounds). Decipher it if you can.
In another, more accessible scene, the Korean-American is persuaded by her overbearing, dying old-world grandmother to “be humble” and pray to Jesus.
Hostile and talky scenes between an obsessively angst-ridden young Caucasian couple (Alexis Papedo and Josh Schell) are woven throughout, in counterpoint to the often-ritualistic antics of a trio of Korean women (Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal and Katie Chan) in dazzling traditional gowns (costumes by Keiko Carreiro).
A scene in which the characters depict ever-more-horrific acts of suicide is not only hilarious, but demonstrates the considerable talents of the cast.
Lee’s play is just as perplexing as she probably intended. It’s an oblique, taunting commentary, sometimes frenetic and funny and sometimes frustratingly scattered and pointless.
What’s totally successful, though, is director Marissa Wolf’s snappy production, with its dynamic cast and a polished veneer that augurs well for future collaborations such as this one.
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven
Presented by the Crowded Fire Theater Co. and Asian American Theater Co.
Where: Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; closes April 16
Tickets: $15 to $35
Contact: www.songs.eventbee.com, www.asianamericantheater.org