The Hilarity is Real

A last chance for Ma Yi’s must-see production, awash in talent

Along with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Sides: The Fear Is Real” offers the funniest stage experience in town.

A few years ago, actress Sekiya Billman (the unforgettable Ma Li in Charles Busch’s “Shanghai Moon”) threw a party at which she coerced her guests into reading some of the hundreds of sides––the pages of a scripted scene actors are given to prepare for auditions––she had saved over the years. Being an Asian-American actress, Billman, had, naturally, been given a plethora of movie prostitute roles to read––as opposed to her “Sides” co-actor, Cindy Cheung, who, Billman told me, “gets all the nurses. There were also numerous examples of shopkeepers, gang members and random immigrant types for Billman to read.

That party proved the inspiration for this show, written by the cast of Mr. Miyagi’s Theatre Company and produced by the Ma-Yi Theater Company. The show is one of the most trenchantly accurate depictions of working performers since “A Chorus Line”––and way more funny. The paralyzing fear, desperation and hope all actors experience when they read for a part are the recurring themes here.

There’s the rapacious casting director (Cheung, in a brilliant turn), who egomaniacally eviscerates actors, turning their auditions into hers. There’s the frighteningly hip choreographer (Rodney To, who is hysterical) who terrorizes his charges, particularly straight men) with the flamboyant, homoerotic dance steps he lays down for “Medea: the Hip Hop Musical.” And, finally, there is that untold number of potential employers who carefully use euphemisms like “Read this more as if you came from… some place else,” to elicit the fresh-off-the-boat (FOB) pidgin English responses to their demands.

Dazzlingly directed by Anne Kauffman, with a terrific set and lighting by David Korins and John-Paul Szczepanski, respectively, the show moves at a breakneck pace, with the talented cast assuming multitudinous characters with supreme virtuosity. Hoon Lee, who was so strong in “Flower Drum Song” and “Pacific Overtures” (before being sidelined by a stage injury) brings his resonantly powerful voice into play as a would-be Shakespearean forced to try out for the role of a gang thug. Handsome Paul H. Juhn, Ma Yi’s “mascot,” for the way he physically incarnates the innate trepidation of the Asian male out of his element, brings these gifts to the fore as the ultimate Nervous Nellie auditioner, positively awash in flop sweat. Peter Kim wittily nails the roles of an obnoxiously fey casting agent, as well as a graduate of Yale School of Drama, with the T-shirt to prove it, who deflates the pretensions of a Julliard would-be rival (To, again).

Billman is fabulously amusing, performing a particularly misbegotten audition, a jaw-droppingly pathetic recreation of Michael Jackson’s entire “Thriller” video. Cheung (who was positively wondrous in Lloyd Suh’s intriguing “Masha No Home”) had me on the floor with her impersonation of Robert DeNiro’s paralytic character in “Flawless,” a silly film that takes a beating here.

The finale is a pure wow––an inspirited, wonderfully campy dance number for the aforementioned “Medea,” so explosive in its sheer joy that it brought the entire, delighted audience to its feet the night I was there.

My favorite skit of the evening, however, has the blindingly talented To, as a certifiably insane Filipino director who goes by the entirely appropriate name of “Ding Ding.” With his hilariously heavy accent and ridiculous ideas, this was over-the-top racial caricature and nothing short of brilliant. (“Close your eyes,” he tells one questioning thespian. “Now open them. You see?”)

As a member of at least two minorities––Asian and gay––I have had to sit through so many indifferent plays that tackle one or both of these groups and fumble them, whether by being offputtingly earnest, off the mark or just plain humorless. It is, therefore, an absolute pleasure to salute this work and company and, as freakin’ corny as it sounds, add that they all made me damn proud to be an Asian-American.

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