Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

AgainTheater Mu
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent review of The Revolutionists

Melody Her and Dexieng Yang
Photo by Rich Ryan
Katia Ka Vang is an award-winning Hmong playwright and theatre artist based in St. Paul. She is also a cancer survivor. Her initial diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2011 triggered a series of chemotherapy treatments, a bone marrow transplant, and going into remission only to relapse. But she has stayed the course, and recently celebrated her seventh year in remission. Again, her first musical, created in collaboration with composer-lyricist Melissa Li (Interstate), reflects on her journey through cancer. Before you close this page thinking, "A musical about cancer, no thanks," I need to add that Again is very much in the musical comedy vein and it offers lots of laughs while also tapping into some more serious business. It was commissioned by Theater Mu, now presenting its world premiere at Mixed Blood Theatre.

Again is the story of Mai See, a woman who is in remission from lymphoma. She is not necessarily a stand-in for Vang, but someone who has at least travelled a parallel path. Like Vang, Mai See is a writer, though a memoirist rather than playwright. Mai See has published a well-received book about her ordeal called "The Cancer Year." A very young, highly spirited woman named Quest pops into the bookstore where Mai See holds down a day job, eager to meet her hero. Quest developed leukemia as a young child, suffering through cycles of months of treatment leading to periods of remission that last no more than six months, followed by more treatments. But now she has been in remission for fourteen months and credits Mai See inspiring her to hang tough.

Now that she believes she has a future, Quest's ambition is to be a filmmaker. She wants to make a documentary about Mai See to submit as her ticket for admission to NYU film school, and persuades Mai See to take part. The two are quite different–Mai See is reserved and prefers to refer to herself as Hmong-American, while Quest is an ultra-extrovert and peppers her conversations with declarations of "Hmong Power." A lot of the humor spins off this "odd couple" set up. Still, they form a sort of alliance, bonding over things like a mutual hatred of "chemo-brain." Both have setbacks in the course of their cancers, and each becomes a source of strength for the other. However, there is a big obstacle to the completion of Quest's documentary: Mai See's older sister Shia was pivotal in providing care for Mai See during her illness, but the two have been estranged for several years, leaving Quest without access to a key interview subject.

The first scene of Again predates all of the above by many years, going back to Mai See and Shia's childhood. They are playing at being characters from a story their mother used to tell them–an elephant foot for Mai See and a snail for Shia. In Hmong culture, the elephant foot is a symbol of strength and the snail a symbol of family. Flashbacks throughout the play further expose the relationship between the sisters after their parents are killed in a car accident.

Li's songs for Again are tuneful, varied, and well placed to further character exposition or convey developing relationships between characters. "She Holds the Key" is an especially tender song in which Mai See reveals her need for the sister who won't return her calls, while "Lifeboat" is Shia's turn, expressing her rage at being used and unappreciated by Mai See.

In a couple of cases songs provide utter comic relief. When Mai See tries to convince her type-A sister to take her dream vacation to Santorini, a dance number featuring a tropical cocktail, a blow up swimming tube, and a buff man clad in only a swimsuit materializes. Another comic number deals with Mai See's chronic constipation, and this too involves dancing. I am fairly certain this is the first time I've seen human turds hoofing it on stage. Sandy Agustin is the game choreographer.

Dexieng Yang is excellent as Mai See, totally convincing in her manner of dealing with the ups and downs of her tango with cancer. In the flashback scenes with sister, Yang depicts a different persona, flighty, immature, and allowing her sister to carry all the burden for their lives, revealing to us the cause of the falling out between them. Pagnia Xiong, with the strongest singing voice among the cast, is outstanding as Shia, pulling no punches in enabling us to understand the rift between them. Melody Her brings great energy and passion, as well as likeability, to her portrayal of Quest.

The fourth cast member, Aaron Komo, is that dancing beachcomber as well as Mai See's doctor and Broc, the owner of the shop where Mai See works. His portrayal of Broc falls flat. Can such an obnoxious, arrogant, clueless person have the people skills to keep an independent bookstore open? I doubt it. His exaggerated boorishness is not funny, just grating. However, in a brief turn as the doctor, Komo ably depicts an earnest physician striving to be clear and direct, calm and soft spoken, as he points to x-ray images and describes treatment options, while Mai See pours out her anger and terror at learning her cancer has returned. The number is called "Are You Fucking Kidding Me?," one of the most powerful scenes in the show.

Nana Dakin directs Again, and I wonder if some of the exaggerated qualities of the characters–Quest's uber-intensity, Broc's obnoxiousness, and Mai See's self-absorption in the flashback scenes–might have been toned down so that the nature of their dilemmas and not their quirks were center stage. The staging, though, moves fluidly, especially when veering in and out of flashbacks, and the insertion of the comedic musical numbers is smoothly managed. Sets, costumes, sound and lighting design all serve the production well.

The opening scene, with the story of the snail and the elephant foot, carries over later in the show when Mai See begins to see (imagine?) a snail in her surroundings, eventually appearing in human-sized form (another role for versatile Aaron Komo) to deliver a message that will settle Mai See's roiling emotions about the turns her life has taken. This business qualifies as "cute," which is to say, it lessens what is a very real and human story. I can imagine the snail bears wisdom from the past, a touchstone with ancestral perspectives that makes life whole. I can imagine that but did not glean it from what I saw on stage. Instead, I found myself clenching whenever "Mr. Snail" appeared.

In spite of some weak elements, Again has a lot of good things going for it: a tuneful score; a book that is able to draw laughs from one of life's harshest challenges; strong performances; and a theme that is meaningful for anyone who has gone through something akin to Mai See and Quest, either personally or through a loved one.

In the end, Again is not really about cancer, but about how we cope with the worst of what life dishes out, and how friends and family members become swept up in our coping mechanisms. And we can generally count on it not only once but happening again and again in the course of a lifetime, making these observations important lessons.

Again, a Theater Mu production, through April 16, 2023, at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets "Pay As You Are." $10 - $60, suggested fair-market value is $45. For information or tickets call 651-789-1012 or visit

Book and Additional Lyrics: Katie Ka Vang; Music and Lyrics: Melissa Li; Director: Nana Dakin; Music Director: Denise Prosek; Scenic Design: Alice Endo; Costume Design: Khamphian Vang; Lighting Design: Erik Paulson; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Design: Kenji Shoemaker; Choreography: Sandy Agustin; Technical Director: Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli; Assistant Director: Sunny Thao; Assistant Music Director: Bob Kelly; Stage Manager: Haley Walsh; Assistant Stage Manager: Christian Erben.

Cast: Melody Her (Quest), Aaron Komo (Broc/Doc), Pagnia Xiong (Shia), Dexieng Yang (Mai See).