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April 21, 2009

Goodman’s ghastly Ghostwritten mars Iizuka’s magic

Lisa Portes’s Ghostwritten, which recently had its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, attempts to bring together the story of Rumpelstiltskin and the Vietnam War—an exceedingly strange combination. Unfortunately, the play’s premise is not the only bizarre and unsatisfying thing about it. Playwright Naomi Iizuka fills Ghostwritten with magic, but her trite, contrived script, illogical plot, and hackneyed characters fail to enchant her audience even when they want to be enchanted.

Ghostwritten’s plot has problems from the beginning, starting with a premise so ridiculous that it would border on the comical even if the rest of the play were well-executed. It tells the story of an American girl named Susan who, feeling “lost,” travels to Vietnam “searching for something” and encounters an Asian sorceress. The sorceress grants Susan the ability to make fine Asian cuisine in exchange for her firstborn—a deal that Susan, who doubts she’ll ever have children, does not hesitate to accept. Before she leaves Vietnam, Susan adopts a child named Bea and brings her back to the United States. Twenty years later, Susan, an acclaimed chef specializing in Asian cuisine, lives happily with Bea and thinks little of the promise she made to the sorceress. All that changes when the mysterious enchantress arrives to retrieve not only Bea, who is now a grown woman, but Bea’s unborn child to boot.

First of all, the fact that Susan agrees to give up her firstborn with so little hesitation seems psychologically implausible for any person who is as remotely intelligent or compassionate as she seems to be later in the play. Even conceding that people can do strange things, or that perhaps the enchantress charmed Susan into doing something she would not otherwise have done, the play’s plot is problematic because it’s not clear why Bea qualifies as Susan’s “firstborn.” Somehow the audience is asked to believe that Susan is obligated to give up her adopted child and her adopted child’s unborn child, even though the terms of the agreement don’t seem to apply to adopted children. Unfortunately, the problems with Ghostwritten’s plot do not end here.

In fact, there is such an abundance of plot holes and illogical twists that even the kindest audience would have trouble suspending its disbelief. At the end of the play, many audience members were asking each other what precisely had happened. Because they’re so confused about the plot, viewers are unable to buy into Iizuka’s surrealistic conceit—the idea that magic exists in the modern world. To ask the audience to believe in a play that is not even internally consistent is simply too much.

As a novice playwright, the Joyce Award-winning Iizuka might have been expected to bring a fresh perspective to her play. Unfortunately, she fails to deliver on the promise of originality that ordinarily makes watching young, up-and-coming playwrights so much fun. Iizuka uses so many cliché tropes and stock characters that they would not be out of place in a bad movie or sitcom. There’s Martin, the crazy, alcoholic, unreliable brother; Linh, the helpful Asian wise man; the sorceress herself, portrayed as an overly demanding Asian woman; Chad/Not Chad, the all-American, white country bumpkin; and Susan, the needy, lonely, middle-aged, white mother. Susan’s daughter Bea represents an amusing mix of stereotypes: the rebellious, adopted, college-aged daughter who has mommy issues, and the harried Asian-American daughter who majored in drama despite her mother’s wishes that she study something “more practical.”

The problem of one-dimensional, unbelievable characters and tropes is compounded by the play’s soap-operatic story line. The world of Ghostwritten is filled with so many traumatic events that the audience becomes numb to the suffering on stage. Iizuka’s play fails to establish an emotional connection between the audience and the events depicted on stage; moving quickly from one absurd event to the next, it doesn’t give viewers time to reflect on events which are, in fact, intensely troubling and could potentially inspire a great deal of sympathy for the characters.

But the failure of this play is not entirely the fault of the playwright. Thanks to Portes’s staging, actors rely too heavily on parts of the stage that audience members in the mezzanine have to stand up to see. In addition, her blocking calls for far too many sweeping hand gestures that make the characters seem more like caricatures than is necessary, and which also caused some audience members to laugh at inappropriate times.

The acting is also somewhat shaky. Tiffany Villarin, who plays Bea, cannot convincingly portray a college-aged person. Although this is in part due to her youthful looks and Iizuka’s poor writing, Villarin’s performance seems too immature, almost as if she were playing a child in middle school or early high school; it was hard to believe she could legally marry or have children.

Despite these problems, there are a handful of exceptional performances that make you wish the play itself were worthy of them. Despite his stereotypical character, Dan Waller creates a surprisingly likable character in Susan’s alcoholic, schizophrenic, hobo brother Martin, and actually got a lot of laughs and a few tears, too. Arthur Acuna, who plays the enchantress’s alter ego Linh, does a nice job of endearing himself in the conventional role of a mild-mannered Asian man who helps white people. But Acuna also gives his character a remarkable amount of emotional depth given the limits of the script. Lisa Tejero’s magnificent use of irony as the sorceress makes the play much funnier than it would have been otherwise and gives certain scenes that magic that Iizuka wants to achieve.

Ultimately, although many of the actors in this production hold their own, they cannot overcome the fact that the plot their characters are a part of is patently illogical, and that their characters are rehashes of old, outdated stereotypes.

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