by Amy Lee Pearsall · August 19, 2015
Troy Iwata, Ray Santos, Shirley Huang, Ariel Estrada | Shirin Tinati
What would you do if you made a promise that ran in the face of everything you stood for and believed in? Set in Hawaii during that state’s march toward marriage equality, Yilong Liu’s play Joker, currently playing at FringeNYC, asks that question of its audience as it explores the themes of regret, remorse, and what we’re willing to take on - or give up - in the name of true love.
Joe (Ariel Estrada) - formerly nicknamed Joker in his native city of Manila - has made Honolulu his home for several years. He’s running a substandard Chinese restaurant with his wife Lin (Shirley Huang) and stepson Ray (Troy Iwata), and is struggling to make ends meet. Frank (Ray Santos), a journalist and an old friend of Joe’s from his former life in The Philippines, shows up with a nose for a story, an eye for a marketing, and a penchant for riling up dusty skeletons from Joe’s long-sealed romantic closet.
Though there are occasionally moments that feel overwrought, performances from the cast are grounded and a delight to watch. Estrada is a convincing everyman caught between trying to do the right thing and following his heart. Santos’ scathing portrayal of Frank is entertaining, though an added hint of actual likability might make the character more relatable. Iwata’s interpretation of Ray is a lovely, complicated portrait of a young man on the threshold of adulthood. And Huang’s elegantly controlled performance of Lin is particularly heartbreaking. Tears streamed down my face at one point as I watched her silently bus a table.
Clocking in at an hour and forty-five minutes with intermission, the show would benefit from the tightening up of occasionally repetitive dialogue, and from squeezing the air out of excessive breaks in the action. I understand it is sometimes necessary to take a bit of time in performance for a moment to land, but some pauses were so long that I wondered whether or not lines had been dropped. As this happened throughout the piece, I could only assume that it was, at least in part, a choice made in Dan Dinero’s direction. I should also mention the show is being staged in a venue that tends to eat sound. While intimacy is greatly appreciated onstage, the volume of delivery would be best adjusted to fit the medium.
Set and props designer Andrew Diaz dresses the stage with industrial kitchen carts, bar stools, and various accoutrements that any family-owned restaurant would be proud to have. Lighting designer David Castaneda keeps it clean, with the occasional red wash for scene changes and some back lighting during island rainstorms. Emily White’s costumes subtly hint at character while keeping things modern and functional. Brian Shevelenko as sound consultant does a fine job with wind chimes and sounds of the island, but I have to say that one pivotal moment - the revelation of a certain telephone companion - was painfully anticlimactic. The importance of the voice for that cannot be overstated; re-recording for future productions would only be an improvement.
While the subject may seem political, Joker - all jokes aside - is a story about heart, the human condition, and where we choose to make our home. Dinero’s interpretation and, in places, Liu’s play itself, might benefit from some tightening up, but all in all, Joker is a solid, heartfelt contribution to this year’s FringeNYC.