‘House of Aunts’ encourages living for yourself

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“DON’T NOBODY WORRY I GOT THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER!”

Producer Ariana Johnson bellowed these words of encouragement as the lights dimmed around the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden, and the preview of the Asian American Theatre Project’s production of House of Aunts, began.

It’s a story as old as time itself: boy meets girl, in Malaysia, and the girl’s a vampire, her aunts got a real hankerin’ for the intestines of unknown men, but that’s all fine, cuz they’re not about to go all paleo diet either – homegurls love to cook.

Yes, Bojan, you say – that is an old story.

Well, pipe down your sarcasm. It actually is. House of Aunts is an original play and the adoptive brainchild of writer-director duo Annabeth Leow and Mirae Lee. Starting with a folk story by Zen Cho, Leow and Lee made the teenage romance dance with vampirism. And it’s a clunky kind of a dance, where every other stride is an elegant one. Leow shows potential as playwright in her migration of prose into dialogue. In the unlikely event that you’ve read the short story: trust and believe, you won’t notice this play was adapted. That said, some issues (however minor) arise when it’s time for the text to come alive.

And that’s okay. Most of the people in the play are thespian neophytes, stretching that artsy limb (as per the instruction of some vice-provost-laureate-professeur-speaker from Mid-Year Convocation or any other desperate ploy UAR undoubtedly pulled to get freshmen to embrace the benefits of a liberal education). That these people are going to get a leading part on the Broad Way anytime soon is unlikely. That they have a ball wrestling each other amidst the statues of the Sculpture Garden is certain.

This, aside from having sold my soul to the Arts Review for eternal beauty, is why I won’t stop going to student plays. These girls were living for themselves. And for each other, too — It is an unanticipated advantage of the performance space that one could see the actors not currently onstage as they quietly sent their peers good vibes.

So, grab a blanket (or five) and head over to the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden this weekend. It’ll be the college version of a dinner-and-a-show soiree. And I promise: you’ll spend an evening of hearty chortles watching six meticulous maneaters bond over cooking plastic organs someone must’ve swiped from an AP Bio classroom.

Interview with director Mirae Lee and playwright Annabeth Leow. 

Stanford Arts Review: Where did the idea to do House of Aunts come from?

Annabeth Leow: Last spring, AATP was doing the season selection, and I was a board member then. Mirae was a frosh intern. I was really pushing for a production that featured Southeast Asia, mainly because I wanted us to move beyond the works we’d done so far. They’re great works, but they tend to focus mainly on the East Asian experience. I remember, someone said: “But what other kinds of Asians are there?” That was very shocking —the whole board was incredulous. We have a diverse board, and at that time, most of the board had some kind of family connection to Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar — Southeast Asia. I had read this short story when it was first published. Zen Cho is an amazing writer whose career has taken off in the past few years, and I have followed her work closely. That’s how I ended up proposing to the board that we do an adaptation of her short story. We had our first readthrough at the beginning of the year, Ken Savage offered it up to the board for feedback, and Mirae’s was especially helpful. The second draft of the script is what we’re working with here — I decreased my engagement with the play because I was hired to stage manage Zoot Suit for Casa Zapata.

Mirae Lee: Everyone was heavily involved in My Fair Lady at the time, and nobody was able to commit to doing House of Aunts. It was a possibility that the play wouldn’t happen because everyone’s mind was elsewhere. I thought it would be unfortunate to pass up the opportunity to direct a Southeast Asian play. So we started thinking about different settings we could stage it in, and the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden entered the conversation. The Garden works well for this play because it foregrounds the visual images of the play. We were considering staging it by the firepit on Lake Lag and quite literally playing with fire, but because of the California drought, we ended up at the Sculpture Garden. And it’s eerie — it tends to create this vortex in on you at times — and this kind of duality between open spaces and vortices supports the horror elements of the play.

This was not a play written for the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden. Do you think that, if you had written the play toward this space, the outcome would have been different?

Annabeth: Even though I wasn’t writing with the Garden in mind, the idea was in the back of my mind. We had discussed setting it there during season selections, and even more importantly, it is a play that happens on an abandoned rubber plantation in rural Malaysia, which is kind of what the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden feels like.

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What has been the most rewarding experience about working on House of Aunts?

Mirae: Most of our actors haven’t acted before, so it’s been rewarding to see them grow and step into their characters. It’s amazing to understand how much of an essence each of them has towards their respective character. There are six aunts, and originally, I was worried that the aunts would blur into one generic aunt character. Thankfully, I think, that hasn’t been the case.

Annabeth: For me, it’s very exciting to work on a project that focuses on Southeast Asia. There are not many students here from the Peninsula, so to do something that’s coming out of the Peninsula excites me. I’m not Malaysian — and I need to be very clear. I’m Singaporean, and that’s a very different set of racial and class histories, but Zen Cho’s short story, albeit a horror comedy, subtextually addresses the rural-urban divide. What I think lent itself nicely to adaptation is how visual her story was as well. The content was already there. I was hoping to accentuate the form.

Mirae: It really mattered to us to acquaint our actors with history of Southeast Asia — a history that they might not have been familiar with prior to the play. We focused on the divides between classes and religions. They drive the plot between the two main characters. One of them is Chinese, and the other one is Malaysian. That’s typically not an acceptable arrangement. We worked really hard with Malaysian students to get the accents right. Most acting videos are about doing a British accent or a Cockney accent, but there aren’t really any videos about Asian accents — even less a Malaysian or Singaporean accent. We really care about not creating caricatures.

Do you think this piece is necessarily activist, or engaged?

Mirae: Not really. I mean, the issues are represented subtextually. But I think it’s fantastic to have a play set in Malaysia, since it’s not in the public eye. Just having it there has its worth.

Annabeth: If you look at the AATP missions statements, part of its mission is to diversify and increase the representation of Asians and Asian Americans in theatre. This play is doing that job in terms of presenting a setting that’s different or a historical context that the audience is not necessarily familiar with.

House of Aunts” is playing at the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden on May 8-10 at 7:30pm.

 

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