LEE/GENDARY - A Review
by Douglas Ferguson
"You know how I like to think of myself? As a human being. Because, and I don't want to sound like, "As Confucius says," but under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family. It just so happens that people are different."
-Bruce Lee (when asked by Pierre Berton if he considered himself Chinese or "North-American")
Pierre Berton's famous interview not only affords an extraordinary glimpse into the life of a legend, it has now inspired actress/playwright Soomi Kim to create LEE/GENDARY, a multi-disciplinary performance piece that shows the legend of a life. As legendary as the real Lee's life was and remains, the play is about much more: the human mind; hopes and dreams and desires; the paths taken to achieve them. The play begins on the night of Bruce Lee's death in the hotel room of Hong Kong actress Betty Ting Pei, Bruce's childhood friend and in this play his lover. As he takes the pill that will ultimately lead to his death, we are transported inside the mind of Bruce Lee to watch his life from its beginning to its inevitable end.
If Wong Kar Wai directed a play about the life of Bruce Lee it would resemble LEE/GENDARY. The piece is experimental but accessible; it engages the audience throughout without losing or confusing them. Each facet of the play works to build the story, from the lighting and the music, both live and pre-recorded, to the actors. The audience gets to see, hear, and even feel the life of a legend played out. In perhaps the most daring choice, Lee is portrayed by Kim herself. She takes on the daunting task of playing Bruce Lee to great effect, assuming his likeness, voice and mannerisms so completely the reality of her gender fades into the legend of her subject. It's as though Bruce's spirit comes down from the great void and inhabits Kim while she performs.
Throughout the play Lee is constantly faced by that all-consuming monster Ego, portrayed with great effect by Shing Ka, who also plays Lee's father (and looks like the love child of Bruce Lee and Elvis Presley). Ka is an actor who has appeared in such notable films as the recent remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. He's also a martial artist who has trained off and on for many years under Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng, and a producer of a martial arts-themed play called WHITE EYEBROW AND THE DESTRUCTION OF SHAOLIN. In LEE/GENDARY, Shing plays the dark side of Bruce Lee. This dark face is known as Yang, although in Taoism Yang is actually the light essence and Yin is the dark essence. Perhaps this is a comment on masculine vs feminine by a female artist. Yang represents Lee's desires to become rich and famous.
Then there's the other side of Lee's Ego: his Yin, played by Constance Parng, who spouts Buddhist and Confucian sayings and tries to lead Bruce down the path of peace and Harmony. Lee ultimately follows his dark side, which is one of the funnier moments in the play as Lee takes on the characteristics of his dark alter ego by donning a leather jacket and dark sunglasses.
The story is narrated mostly by Lee himself. We start with his birth, then follow him through his teenaged years, and of course watch his meeting with Grandmaster Yip/Ip Man, well-portrayed by Pai Sen Wang, an actor and martial artist who studies wushu under the tutelage of Master Gao Xian.
This scene sets the tone of the script in that it uses actual dialogue from ENTER THE DRAGON. Throughout the remainder of the play are sprinkled bits of dialogue culled from Lee's movies and books. There are even scenes where highlights of his movies are played out like live trailers and the actual dialogue from the dubbed movies is played over a loud speaker and mouthed out of synch by the actors, just like the old chop socky films from the 70's and 80's. We are treated to bits from all the films but ENTER THE DRAGON. My favorite scene out of the movie sequences was the GAME OF DEATH fight against Kareem Abdul Jabbar (played by Pai Wang in a big afro wig, and sunglasses, and sneakers with four inch lifts on them, since Pai stands about 6'4'' and had to use lifts to really capture the effect). I couldn't keep from laughing.
The script also explores something that most Lee biography films shy away from?his relationship with Betty Ting Pei (played beautifully by Constance Parng). LEE/GENDARY playwright Derek Nguyen writes Betty as an argumentative lover who, despite her drinking, makes our hero feel like a man. We are also treated to a reenactment of the 1974 interview with Betty discussing her relationship with Lee. The audience sees the interview both live on stage and in black and white on a projector. By combining Lee's actually words with scripted ones and using moments from Lee's life, LEE/GENDARY gives us a spectacle that is the life of a man who changed the face of martial arts and martial arts movies.
The play breaks the old rule of never showing your back to the audience, a quirk of staging that is becoming standard in martial arts or martial artist-based plays. For example, a scene set at the beginning of Lee's teenage years showing Bruce being harassed by both British and Chinese kids has the kids (played by the entire cast) face the audience, while Lee faces the back of the stage. As a side note, the harassment is merely mimed. I would have preferred to see kids face to face with Lee actually making contact with their strikes, but that's just one reviewer's opinion. In general, the movements and positions of the actors helped build the scenes, and the actors used the entire stage to great effect.
What's a story about Bruce Lee without some action? Unfortunately, this is one of the weaker aspects of LEE/GENDARY. Where individual techniques were decent enough, the fights lacked structure and intent?in the words of Lee himself, "We need emotional content." After the performance Shing Ka said I caught them on an off night, but I can only review the performance I attended. It was definitely watchable, but the fights needed that fierceness and ferociousness you expect to see in a Bruce Lee movie. Kim often seemed to be thinking of the next movement instead of simply moving, as though unfamiliar with another famous Bruce Lee quote: "Don't think, feel. It is like a finger pointing to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory."
The end fight scene was considerably more polished, with some very good chi sao-type exchanges. This can be attributed to Aaron Armstrong, who served as Wing Chun advisor. Aaron has studied and completed the Wing Chun system under both Yip Ching (son of Yip Man) in China and Sifu V.A. Thomas, of the Moy Yat lineage through Master Lee Moy San, here in New York. Aaron is not only a Wing Chun sifu, he is a stunt man of stage and screen and a fight choreographer in his own right. I'm sure that as the show goes on and the actors gain more experience and confidence, the fights will look better and better.
The music?both the live tabla (a type of drum) and pre-recorded compositions?were fantastic, adding yet another layer added to the play. The music did exactly what music should do in a play or movie?enhance the scene. The score is mixed with the words of Lee in some scenes, giving an almost eerie feeling, while the tabla playing during the fight scenes gave them an almost Chinese opera feel.
The play ends with a projection of the interview by Pierre Berton (as played by Walker Lewis, who also turned in a great performance as Chuck Norris) during which Lee utters the words which introduce this article. And while I could go on and on about this multi-layered and multi-disciplinary performance piece, I will once again borrow words of wisdom from Bruce Lee: "Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else's view or a mere book."
LEE/GENDARY runs for the next three weeks (October 14th-30th) at the here Theater in New York, NY (for ticket information and more about the play visit leegendary.com or here.org). Shows began promptly at 7:30 pm, so if you're in New York City with and want to see a great show, go see this play. It is a must for the Lee enthusiast and for the martial artist in general, as this man has done much for the martial arts here in America and around the world.
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Written by Douglas Ferguson for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM