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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
When Tigers Smoked Long Pipe
By Jana J. Monji
Angela Kang’s first full-length play, When Tigers Smoked Long Pipes, is a magical journey into a wise-cracking way of the world. Produced by the Lodestone Theatre Ensemble and the Orphans Theater Company and the Victory Theatre Center at the cozy Victory Theatre Center in Burbank, this world premiere proves how worthwhile small theater productions can be even when re-telling old tales.
Kang’s script takes five traditional Korean folk tales (Sister Sun, Brother Moon, the Legend of Tan Gun, the Woodcutter and the Heavenly Maiden, Shim Chong: The Blind Man’s Daughter, and the Devoted Tiger) and incorporates modern-day references -- e.g. a certai Led Zeppelin song, grumbling feminist asides about the patriarchal societies and humorous explanations.
We begin in darkness", long ago when gods still walked the earth and tigers smoked long pipes" and soon get to meet a tiger, played with sly wit and bombastic style by Kipp Shiotani. He pounces on a hard-working mother on her way home late at night and then proceeds to the children she left unguarded at home. The sister and brother (Aimie Billion and Rachel Morihiro, respectively) call on the gods to save them and make them the Sun and the Moon. The tiger asks the gods for help getting his escaping tasty morsels, but gets his just desserts.
The Tale of Tan Gun is about a "master plan" a father, Tan Gun who is the God of the Heavens (Jason Grimley), has for his son, Hwan Ung (Shiotani). Sent to earth with a back-up trio of girls, Hwan Ung creates a woman from a dim-witted bear (the unabashedly amusing Laurel Devaney) much to the consternation of the bear’s former roommate, the tiger (Phil Young). This tiger lost his chance to become human like the bear due to his need for a smoke (from a long pipe, of course). This woman bemoans the patriarchal society that requires her to have a hubbie yet she prays to Hwan Ung to find one and becomes part of Tan Gun’s master plan.
Young, who twitches his eyebrows and smirks as the impatient tiger, lamenting that “"having a conversation with you [the bear] is like talking to a dirt clod except a dirt clod has brains", is equally expressive as the mother of a woodcutter (Grimley). Too poor to court a woman, this woodcutter seems fated to have only one woman in his life--mom. When the woodcutter does find a heavenly maiden ((Billion) to marry, you quickly get the idea; the mother isn’t so pleased. Whether this tale has a happy ending depends on whose side you’re on.
The story of the Blind Man’s Daughter could use some judicious editing. A girl (Esperanza Catubig) sacrifices herself to the Dragon King so her father (Young) may see. She meets the Dragon King (Shiotani) who doesn’t eat her, she has a great life, decides she wants to return to see her father, returns to earth, meets a king, gets married and then finally sees her father again. That tale should have been one show in itself.
The Devoted Tiger (Laurel Devaney) is about a clever woodcutter (Aquino) who fools a tiger into believing they are brothers leading the tiger to be devoted to the woodcutter’s mother. Although it makes a very fitting Confucian filio-piety tale, it isn’t as magical as the first three. Together, these last three stories make for a weaker second act.
My quibbles are minor since director Robert Shinso easily navigates these charming tales with wit and wonder. His ensemble of storytellers have comedic flair. Ann Closs-Farley’s costume design incorporates various Asian traditions into a colorful hodge-podge. Cynthia Q. Ignacio’s imaginative set design and props and the simplified masks and creature design by Jenn Bastian have the styling of a spare though sparkling costume party.
This production is a successful fusion of old with the new, Asian tradition and American contemporary sensibilities. Kang’s piece is also a rare case of family theater that isn’t really just for kids.