Yellow Fever by Mu Performing Arts at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio Theater

Kurt Kwan as Sam Shikaze. Photo: Michal Daniel 2013The Guthrie’s Dowling Studio Theater is the site for Mu Performing Arts fresh, new production of their founder and artistic director’s play, Yellow Fever. Although it’s been thirty years since the play’s premiere – and the W. W. II-era internment camps are a generation or more removed – the play’s premise remains as meaningful – and its process as entertaining – as ever. 

Sam Shikaze (Kurt Kwan) is a loner private eye in Vancouver, B.C., whose life revolves around his dingy office and the warmth of a neighborhood diner and it’s owner, Rosie’s, motherly affection.

Sound familiar? There’s more to this detective story than it’s noir setup. Our aloof and lovable hero is Japanese, who chooses to stay on Powell Street (the “ghetto”), charge next to nothing for his services, and help the people he knows and trusts.

This irritates the hell out of his childhood pal, local cop Captain Kadota (Eric Sharp), who unlike Sam, actually finished cadet school and worked his way up in the force. Kadota works too hard at trying to play by the rules; his anger about inadequate promotions and racist jokes on the police force exploding like firecrackers around him. Sam looks like he doesn’t have much, but he has his community and his independence, which also irritates the hell out of Kadota.  Sharp plays this role with great skill, but it took me until well into the second act to believe that he was old enough for it.

Only Sam, of course, has access to the people who can help solve a kidnapping that has the cops baffled. How, what and who dunnit gets a slow start – a lot of talk about a case that’s light on details and action, much less clues – but the payoff is rich with comic ironies and floppy twists.

As much as the play serves to illuminate the pain caused by injustices against Asian-Canadians, the audience is more invested in Sam’s relationship with a tough, young reporter for the local newspaper. Nancy Wing (Sara Ochs) has determined that Sam is going to crack the case and give her the exclusive; she’s also determined to get Sam.

With Sam also serving as narrator, Kwan has an easy relationship with his audience and his character’s world, shrugging off offenses as irritants and honing in on the real prize. He’s so charming because he doesn’t try to be. Although the sparks never quite catch fire between him and Ochs, she plays the “Hepburn” role with the right balance of swagger and warmth.

Sam’s bond with Rosie, played so delightfully by Jeannie Lander, is the one we know enough to count on. Alex Galick plays his lawyer pal, Chuck Chan, a cool comic sidekick in fancy suits with funky moves and an eye for the ladies.

Brandon Ewald plays the simple-minded blowhard Sergeant Mackenzie. He’s a big man, with a big voice – and a broad accent to match. Wade A. Vaughn as Superintendent Jameson is so smooth that we slide right along with him through his fast-thinking (turns.)

The trick with this play is to capture the era capturing another era, playing to an audience of another era – without flat-out stereotypes marking the path.  This production does this deftly; we get the laughs – and we get the point.

Running through March 24th. Recommended.

Photo: Kurt Kwan as Sam Shikaze. By Michal Daniel 2013

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