Cleo Gray, Stephen Stout, and Tony Vo in A CAUTIONARY TAIL.
BOTTOM LINE: This unusual play remains consistently enthralling in its exploration of the penalties of our dependence on technology and the clash of Chinese and American cultures.
To describe what A Cautionary Tail is about is not easy; unlike other plays that deal with one central theme or situation, this work tackles many topics and threads making it a powerful, complex play. It may be one whose metaphors leave some audience members lost, but it is surely one that will easily incite long conversations. I wish I had been able to attend one of the show's talk-backs just so I could pick the brain of playwright christopher oscar peña and get a better understanding of the play’s messages.
At the center of the play are siblings Luke (Tony Vo) and Vivienne (Cleo Grey), two overachieving high school students at Stuyvesant High School who stress over every grade, due in part to their overbearing Chinese mother (Bobby Foley). Their mother lives up to the stereotype and demands perfection from her children, expecting all work and no play. In the play’s dance intro this is shown by an ensemble of young actors who dance freely, but when the mother appears and waves her fan every movement becomes focused and precise. When Luke and Vivienne behave like their American friends their mother is livid, physically and verbally abusing them. However, despite their strict home environment, the brother and sister have their secrets: Vivienne is secretly dating an African American (Barron Bass) whereas Luke is gay and discovering his sexuality, placing his sights on Kaelan (Stephen Stout), a record store employee. Luke and Vivienne are both visited by a mysterious purple-clad insurance salesman (Alex Grubbs) who asks them to make a deal to insure their futures, each gambling their sibling’s future for the security of their own.
In an interesting side plot we see Tin's (also played by Bobby Foley) story: like Vivienne and Luke, Tin is a Chinese American graduate of Stuyvesant High School. He worked hard, went to a top tier school, and landed a job in his field. However, after being at the company for years Tin has still not moved up the ladder. “You’re not a leader, you’re a worker bee,” his boss (whom he is also sleeping with) tells him. Despite finding Tin of interest to her intellectually and sexually, she believes he lacks too many qualities to ever make it up the ladder. Tin realizes that the Chinese values of hard work and respect have not paid off for him, that in American business loudness and domination are more likely to lead to promotion than intelligence and respect. Tin sees that the person he was molded to be is not the kind of person who easily gets ahead.
Among the most entertaining scenes in the play are those that consist of Luke spending time with his two best friends Koren (Bonnie Milligan) and Brandi (Madeleine Bundy). These scenes include the most laugh-inducing lines, giving Milligan and Bundy a chance to display their enigmatic talents as performers, and also serve to show the prominent role of technology in the lives of Millennials. In one scene the three communicate via instant messenger and type out their dramatic conversation via a trio of keyboards. When Luke seeks revenge against his sister for ratting him out to their mother, Luke destroys her via a Facebook update listing the boys she had sexual experiences with. Again the role of technology is emphasized by a flurry of faces typing furiously into lit up cell phones, eventually surrounding Vivienne as an angry mob.
The play succeeds at being thoroughly engaging from start to finish, and manages to tackle many threads and topics, exploring the harmful effects of carrying out one’s personal dramas online in public view as well as the clash of East and West. Aside from a strong cast, the play’s visceral energy also comes from the reoccurring use of physical movement in the work, thanks in part to Laura Brandel’s movement direction. A clever usage of minimal props helps the scenes to quickly transition, as does the use of background sound. A Cautionary Tail is an unusual, complex work, sure to incite questions, contemplations, and conversations.
(A Cautionary Tail plays at The Flea Theatre, 41 White Street, through July 23, 2013. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at either 7PM or 9PM through June 30th, and then July 1st at 7PM; July 2nd at 7PM; July 3rd at 7PM; July 6th at 7PM; July 15th at 7PM; July 21st at 7PM; July 22nd at 7PM; and July 23rd at 7PM. Check theflea.org for full performance schedule. Tickets are $15-$30 and are available at web.ovationtix.com or by calling 866.811.4111.)