LADY IN THE RED DRESS by David Yee, directed by Nina Lee Aquino. Presented by fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre in association with the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, at the Young Centre (55 Mill). Runs to February 21, Monday-Saturday 8 pm. Matinee Saturday 2 pm. $10-$26. 416-866-8666, fu-gen.org. Rating: NNNN
Writer David Yee and director Nina Lee Aquino deserve kudos for taking on a big, important chunk of Canadian history and making it as theatrical as possible without lessening the impact of the subject.
[rssbreak]Yee's lady in the red dress is an angry yet always entertaining response to the Conservative government's lame attempt to redress - consider the pun in the title - the head tax and exclusion act on Chinese-Canadian immigrants.
Max (Richard Zeppieri) is a crass lawyer at the Department of Justice who's trying to please his even more crass bureaucrat boss (Stewart Arnott) and placate the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC).
A modern-day Scrooge whose rants are worthy of David Mamet, Max soon embarks on a history lesson that's wrapped up in film noir tropes. Led by the femme fatale of the title, he journeys back in time, uncovering murder, sex, vengeance and all the other things that make noirs such great fun.
Director Aquino handles the transitions between past and present, naturalism and fantasy skillfully, never descending into cliché. She theatricalizes things that might seem unplayable on the page - cutting in and out of a movie sequence, for instance - with total ease.
Camellia Koo's multifunctional set and Romeo Candido's haunting sound design always help to orient us. One aural motif in particular sticks in the subconscious until a payoff in a big melodramatic reveal.
Yee's imagination knows no boundaries - and sometimes you wish he'd focus a bit more. A few scenes could be trimmed, and his women aren't the most complex. Still, he's got a great sense of humour, sending up everything from CBC dramas to acting at Stratford and Canadian Heritage Commercials. There's a bit of Alice In Wonderland in here, but also a nod to J-horror. And his use of Toronto's Chinatown is obviously a comment on Roman Polanski's depiction of Chinatown as a sinister place where nasty, secretive things can happen.
Zeppieri, onstage for nearly the entire show, makes Max's journey believable (which takes some skill) and even moving. Arnott adds nuance to his series of bigoted white men, and Nicco Lorenzo Garcia creates a touching portrait as Max's autistic son.
Everyone's nearly upstaged by Ins Choi, who plays a wide gallery of characters - including a one-man radio station - with energy and impressive technique.