Review: ‘Chan’ leaves question unanswered

Aug. 28, 2013 | 0 Comments

REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / jberger@staradvertiser.com

Fans of fictional Chinese detective Charlie Chan know Earl Derr Biggers wrote the first Charlie Chan mystery after he learned of the exploits of a real-life Chinese-American police detective, Chang Apana, who worked the mean streets of downtown Honolulu, Chinatown and the “red light” district of Iwilei in the 1910′s and ‘20s.

0828 charlie chan

‘Will the Real Charlie Chan Please Stand Up?’

Presented by Kumu Kahua Theatre

» Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
» When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 22
» Cost: $20 general admission (discounts available)
» Info: 536-4441 or www.kumukahua.org

Playwright Nancy P. Moss imagines the two Chinese detectives working together in Kumu Kahua’s season-opening production of “Will the Real Charlie Chan Please Stand Up?” The play would be much more interesting if it addressed that question.

Chan, portrayed in films with great commercial success by Swedish actor Werner Olund in the 1930′s, and then by Scottish-American Sidney Toler into the 1940′s, is condemned by some as an ethnic stereotype, but he was a uniquely positive figure — wise, urbane, heroic, and an excellent detective — at a time when the other prominent Asian character in American fiction was evil genius Fu Manchu. Chang Apana was the first Chinese-American to become an HPD detective. Fluent in Hawaiian, Pidgin English and at least one Chinese dialect, he was known and feared for his skill with a bullwhip — a weapon he found more effective for intimidating suspects than a billy club or gun.

In Moss’ story, Chang (Daryl Bonilla) is busting gambling games, intercepting opium shipments and investigating thefts from the HPD evidence room when a man in an immaculate white suit introduces himself as Charlie Chan and offers to help with his investigations. Chang isn’t sure he needs or wants help, but Chan (Shawn Forsythe) quickly proves to be a resourceful investigator and valuable ally.

Bonilla plays Chang as a standard local everyman who happens to be a master of disguises and a terror with a bullwhip. Forsythe almost steals the show with his portrayal of Olund’s portrayal of Chan. Moss may or may not have written Chan as an oddball comic character or cardboard caricature of real-life Chinese people, but Forsythe and director Reiko Ho make him a witty and thoroughly likeable hero.

Stu Hirayama (Lee Fook) and Eddy Gudoy (Joseph) earn laughs as run-of-the-local-mill comic sidekicks. Neal Milner all but foams at the mouth as Chang’s belligerent and racist Caucasian boss.

Director Ho stages the story as a mash-up of several eras. The elaborate and precisely choreographed set changes occur at the frenetic pace of a silent movie of the early 20th century. Lee Fook wants Joseph to teach him the Charleston, a dance that peaked in popularity in the mid-‘20s. Forsythe’s moustache and goatee clones the look that Olund made iconic in the ‘30s. Jennifer Stierli (Mei Lai) brings to mind the stereotypical Asian femme fatales of ‘30s and ‘40s Hollywood with her portrayal of a brothel madame.

Unfortunately, the provocative question posed by the title is never asked, let alone addressed in this two-act production.

For instance, Chan is sometimes condemned as a Caucasian novelist’s ethnic stereotype, and an inaccurate representation of the Chinese people of his era, but no one that this Charlie Chan encounters in Honolulu seems to find him particularly odd or un-Chinese. Apparently the first Charlie Chan novel, “The House Without A Key,” has not yet been published at the time the story takes place because no one questions the stranger when he introduces himself as “Charlie Chan.” Nor is any curiosity piqued by his immaculate white suit and broad brim hat dispute the fact that none of the other characters wear such garb.

Subtract the filler material from the story is actually being told here, and a one-act play of, say, 45 minutes, would suffice to tell what turns out to be just another local crime story.

Consider that the title suggests a play that explores the similarities and differences between the fictional character of Charlie Chan and the real-life Chinese-American detective whose exploits inspired the novels and films. It could have examined the perspectives on Chinese culture that the Chan novels and films put forth. It could have been richly embellished with one-liner references to the books and the films and the island locales Biggers mentioned in his books.

But it didn’t, it doesn’t and it isn’t. With the question posed in the title irrelevant to the story that is actuall being told, this local-style comedy/melodrama is one act longer than it needs to be.
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John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at jberger@staradvertiser.com.

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