Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery: garbled fun

Mu Performing Arts, performing in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, through May 28

Hope Nordquist, Eric Sharp and Song Kim in Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Eric Sharp totally carries Lloyd Suh‘s gloriously messy Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (whew). His stern comic timing is balanced by passion and perfect anger/love (see the play; you’ll understand what I mean). Sharp’s sharp energy makes this play work. He was a hoot and a half in Middle Brother (which he also wrote) and a scream as Malvolio but in Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (I used the cut-and-paste function) he elevates himself onto a new plane entirely. Good on him.

Sharp plays Frank Chan Jr. Chan drops out of UC Berkeley (it’s 1967) to become an angry playwright (the form of which he is more or less completely ignorant). He sees himself as the world’s first Asian-American. Not a chinaman, certainly not an oriental (“I reject that word!”), not even Chinese. He is on a mission to publicize this new passionately held political awareness. He marries (for reasons I am unable to explain) Kathy (played in a nice turn by the contained and elegant Hope Nordquist). Borrows money from his father, Charles Sr., to mount his (half-written) play, Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery.

Frank has a… fantasy, an imaginary companion, a doppelganger. A monkey (of course), played with sweet perfection by the ever-elfin Randy Reyes (who also directs).

Then the play segues into its murder mystery component, featuring the murder (of Earl Biggers – ?? – the writer who initially created Charlie Chan. Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery doesn’t really pursue this; there is a lot of stuff this play chooses not to pursue). The murder is desultorily investigated by the Hollywood-in-the-30s detective, Charlie Chan. Our man Frank, now sporting a raincoat and a reporters felt hat, plays Charlie’s… sidekick? Assistant? Son?

Charlie Chan. There were three actors, all caucasian, who played the fortune cookie aphorism spouting Chinese detective. Charlie Chan is a shameful but indelible part of American cultural history. In Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery he spends a lot of time onstage. “Ah, so,” he says with regularity. “Where is Rorerei (Lorelei)?” Chan is played with affecting gravitas by Luverne Seifert. Who else could pull this off?

I think you get it: Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery lurches from plot thread to thread, everything attacked with admirable comic energy. The ending, not to give anything away, features not one, not two, but three samurai swords. Yowza.

Can I recommend this play? Well, gee. If you’re passionate about Asian identity, about Frank Chan’s ground-breaking work (he really existed), if you’re an Eric Sharp fan (and I hope there are many), if you like messy but beautifully comic plays, then Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery may be the play for you. Kudos to Mu for taking it on.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His recent book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. Please visit his informational website.

 

 

 

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