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Year of the Rabbit

Also see Sharon's review of Three Views of the Same Object

Year of the Rabbit
Keliher Walsh and Meshach Taylor
I don't think I'd ever actually considered the possibility that our soldiers fighting in the Middle East might be the children of our soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Keliher Walsh's world premiere play, Year of the Rabbit, takes that idea and runs with it.

And when the play is really truly focused on that issue, it's at its best. Meshach Taylor plays JC Bridges, who, in 1967, returned from his first tour in Vietnam to hatred and racism in the turbulent States. He's captivating when he tells his daughter Kara about his experiences, before she, herself, goes off to the Persian Gulf. But nobody knows, not until much later in the play, the true legacy of his experiences.

The problem, though, is that Year of the Rabbit tries to shoehorn quite a bit more into its 90-minute running time, and none of it really succeeds. It opens on Lieu, a young Vietnamese woman who, if you're paying any attention at all, you'll realize is destined to meet JC and ultimately become Kara's mother. (The script takes place in "The Present and the Past," playing fast and loose with chronology.) Lieu is, by and large, operating in her own play—a monologue of her life story, told directly to the audience, where she takes on the voices and characters of others with whom she has interacted. Elyse Dinh overacts Lieu, nearly to the point of distraction. To be sure, Lieu's life has been filled with terrifying experiences that would justify intense displays, but Dinh's delivery is nearly a caricature. It's as if the character of Lieu, for whom English is not a first language, feels the need to overly dramatize things in order to get her point across to her English-speaking audience. Dinh plays several other characters as well, and it's clear that she's capable of subtlety and this portrayal of Lieu is a deliberate choice. But with Lieu over-expressing all of her emotion, there's nothing left for the audience to feel.

We also meet Kara's military partner, a pilot named Brice. When we first meet Kara, she has been called to account for events—Brice is dead and the brass want answers. Kara tells the officers little (and the play lets on that she's lying before the scene is even over); as the play unfolds, we are left to discover what went down between Kara and Brice, both personally and professionally, that resulted in Brice's death.

There's more, too. We also meet Brice's parents, Spence and Allie. Playwright Walsh has written herself a great little character in Allie; swirling her cocktail, popping her pills, breaking her shoe, and spouting inappropriate conversation wherever she goes, Allie would be comic relief were it not for the fact that there's something serious bubbling beneath the surface. But the performer Walsh gets the writer Walsh perfectly, and Allie's scenes are just delicious.

Add it all together, though, and it's all too much for the play to support. The doubling of characters is a teensy bit confusing (when Taylor is credited as "JC Bridges, General," that's actually two different characters); and two pivotal scenes are played simultaneously, with Dinh turning from side to side as she plays a different character in each one. The revelations in both scenes are critical, but largely lost in the non-sequential delivery. (Also, unfortunately, many softly spoken lines are simply lost on much of the audience as the theatre's air conditioner, helpfully located behind the audience, is often louder than the actors.)

There are some thought-provoking ideas in Year of the Rabbit, but with so much else going on, they don't get the airing they deserve.

Year of the Rabbit plays at the Atwater Village Theatre through October 28, 2012. For tickets and information, see www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org.

Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA – Artistic Director Gates McFadden, Managing Director Michael Ruff – presents the world premiere of Year of the Rabbit by Keliher Walsh. Directed by James Eckhouse. Scenic Design Hana S. Kim; Lighting Design Pablo Santiago; Sound Design Joseph ‘Sloe' Slawinski; Costume Design Tina Haatainen-Jones; Publicity Lucy Pollak; Stage Manager Liana Dillaway; Producers Gates McFadden & Laura Hill.

Cast:
Lieu, Pharmacist, Caseworker, Journalist – Elyse Dinh
LT. Kara Bridges – Ashanti Brown
JC Bridges, General – Meshach Taylor
Spence Skinner, Admiral – Peter Mackenzie
LT. Brice Skinner – Will McFadden
Allie Skinner – Keliher Walsh


Photo: Betsy Newman


- Sharon Perlmutter






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