Theater review

Review: 'Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven' at Studio Theatre

NO JOKE: Patricia Penn, left, Sue Jin Song and Youngsun Cho taunt a Korean American woman alienated from her heritage.
NO JOKE: Patricia Penn, left, Sue Jin Song and Youngsun Cho taunt a Korean American woman alienated from her heritage. (Carol Pratt)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010

If you're going to be discomfited, harangued and quite possibly even dragged onto the stage, let it be by someone as scathingly mischievous as Young Jean Lee. Her wildly sardonic performance piece at Studio Theatre, "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven," is a provocateur's funny, guns-blazing take on the utter banality of ethnic stereotypes and other cross-cultural outrages.

Mind you, public-service announcement material this is not. "Songs of the Dragons" begins with a recording of a man repeatedly hitting a woman, and what follows is an unsettling series of sequences of varying degrees of shock value and satire: three Korean women in traditional costumes, taking turns punching and kicking a young Korean-American woman; a porno-style shadow-puppet play; a rousing Korean version of "Amazing Grace"; a dull white couple interrupting the proceedings to air their run-of-the-mill relationship issues.

The events of "Songs of the Dragons" are not tied together dramatically in a classic sense: The play segues uncertainly from one vignette to another and ends in a most bizarrely anti-climactic fashion. The connectedness springs from the idea that any assigning we try to do of behavior by ethnic identity is patently ridiculous. And just as ludicrous, "Songs of the Dragons" tells us, is the "Kumbaya" notion that we could ever walk a mile in the other guy's shoes.

"There is minority rage inside me!" mutters the evening's main character, engagingly played by Jiehae Park and identified in the program only as "Korean American." She addresses us directly, as if the 90-minute play were a town hall grievance session, and confides what she believes to be scandalous realities about the nation's racist pecking order. "Asian women," she declares snippily, "will date white men that no white woman will touch" -- the kind of generalization that carries its own whiff of bias.

Like the comedian Sarah Silverman, Lee is a subversive who toys with our accepted wisdom about identity and femininity. In her case, it's the perceptions of and expectations about Asian women that she's undermining. A large portion of "Songs of the Dragons" is given over to the portrayal of the three gowned Korean women, identified as Koreans 1 through 3 and portrayed with an enjoyable verve by Patricia Penn, Sue Jin Song and Youngsun Cho. They mercilessly taunt Park's character, a woman who is alienated from her ethnic heritage.

If that were not ostracism enough, the women -- depicted so often as shy and demure in gauzy works of fiction with titles like that of Lee's play -- begin taking turns beating the daylights out of her. The sequence goes on and on; it's so brutal that you laugh at the audacity of it. All through "Songs of the Dragons" are moments meant to explode an audience's complacency, its typically passive role in the theater. Several times, the actors beseech theatergoers to join them on Luciana Stecconi's utilitarian rendering of a temple, in Studio's penthouse raw space, where they tend to look a little bewildered.

Lee seems perfectly content staying one or two steps ahead of her audience. Part of the pleasure of "Songs of the Dragons" is in letting down your guard and simply allowing her jarring images to force themselves rambunctiously into your imagination.

The play, first produced in New York in 2006 and here presented as part of Studio's 2nd Stage program, retains its day-of freshness thanks to a director, Natsu Onoda Power, who's plugged in to the dramatist's no-holds-barred circuitry. In its slyly eccentric way, it's an evening of enlightenment.

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven

By Young Jean Lee. Directed by Natsu Onoda Power. Set, Luciana Stecconi; costumes, Elisheba Ittoop; fight and dance choreography, Joe Isenberg; lighting, Joyce Liao; video, Tae Jung Choi. With Rachel Holt, Brandon McCoy. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 24 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit or call 202-332-3300.

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