Friday, October 17, 2008

Lee/Gendary: Soomi Kim is Bruce Lee

It might sound like an invitation for bad karma to depict the all-time king of movie badness in a gender-bending theatrical piece, but there is a solid historical foundation for such poetic license. As a newborn, Bruce Lee’s mother gave him a female name to deceive the evil spirits thought responsible for the death of her first born son. Thus the Bruce Lee legend began, and also provided the seed of inspiration for Soomi Kim’s Lee/Gendary, in which she stars as Lee himself, now playing at the HERE Arts Center.

Set against a minimalist background with projected video images, Lee/Gendary recounts Lee’s life through his deathbed flashbacks, from a scrawny, bullied kid to the Kung Fu movie superstar. Some of the best sequences of Lee/Gendary involve clever recreations of scenes from classic Lee films, particularly the fight with a young Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon. Oddly, no specific scene from his final (and for many fans his greatest) film Enter the Dragon, gets such treatment, yet the film is an explicit touchstone for the play. Early dialogue from Enter is seamlessly integrated into Lee/Gendary, and the climatic scene parallels that of the film through its use of mirrors.

With Airon Armstrong, Kim choreographed some fantastic Kung Fu scenes, which she performs fearlessly. She executes some dazzling acrobatic feats and takes a number of falls on what looks like an awfully hard stage. With extensive performance experience as a martial artist and dancer, Kim is totally credible in the role of Lee. To use a term fraught with double-meaning, it seems like Lee/Gendary plays it straight. In the context of the work, Lee is a man, just played by a woman. The vibe here seems more Jungian than Freudian, with Kim representing the feminine yin to the masculine yang of Lee’s personality. Indeed, we come to see that symbolic conflict played out on the stage.

Despite its experimental nature, Lee/Gendary’s Kung Fu choreography has real crowd-pleasing potential and director Suzi Takahashi keeps things moving at a good pace—it could even prove successful in a larger, more commercial Off-Broadway venue. Kim is enormously talented and displays true stage presence. Her only problem in Lee/Gendary is that members of her supporting cast sometimes have trouble keeping up with her high level of performance (a problem Lee also faced in some of his films). The noteworthy exceptions are ensemble members Shing Ka, who eventually plays yang to Kim’s yin, and Constance Parng as Betty Tingpei, the Taiwanese actress in whose apartment Lee died, and with whom he was having an affair, at least according to Lee/Gendary.

Heightening the atmosphere of Lee/Gendary is the original (but pre-recorded) music, which will be of interest to jazz and experimental music listeners. Featuring work composed by Jen Shyu, best known for her work with Steve Coleman and Five Elements, as well as jazz guitarist Adam Rogers, whose extensive credits include the Mingus Orchestra, Lee/Gendary’s score is often moody and disconcerting, but at times suggests the funky soundtracks of Lee’s classic films. However, the live tabla accompaniment of Dibyarka Chatterjee most effectively lends urgency to the on-stage action.

Kim knows her Bruce Lee, which results in an adventurous but respectful treatment of his life. Her work here is very impressive and definitely recommended, especially if you already have a fondness for Lee’s films. It runs at HERE Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, through October 30th.