It’s 1989 in San Francisco. Manford (Ray Yamamoto) is a 17-year-old Chinese-American orphan from Chinatown. He’s “relentless,” to use his own word. He’s also one hell of a point guard.
And what Manford wants is to play in a certain big-deal “friendship game” in Beijing between American and Chinese basketball teams. But first, he has to make his case to coach Saul (Jim Shankman) in Lauren Yee’s spry comedic drama “The Great Leap,” a co-production of The Hangar Theater and Portland Stage Company.
Saul needs some convincing. If Manford were a foot taller than his height of 5 feet 5 inches, he says – and not that nicely. If Manford were Black. But the University of San Francisco team is down a point guard, Manford reminds Saul. Manford declares himself “the most feared player in Chinatown.”
Saul’s response: “And I’m the least circumcised Jew from the Bronx.”
But Saul eventually comes around, much to the dismay of Manford’s neighbor-friend Connie (plucky, dynamic Eileen Doan). Connie worries about the volatility of the Communist city as student protests are rising. And she worries about Manford, whose mother has just died.
Indeed, Manford’s trip will prove momentous in ways beyond sports alone.
Under the direction of Natsu Onoda Power, “The Great Leap” (whose title alludes, in part, to one of Mao’s infamous mid-century social-economic campaigns) is a stirring, raucous, zingingly-paced vault into themes of politics, family, the collective vs. the individual, and personal choice.
Anita Stewart’s set design deftly synthesizes sport with larger issues. The stage is measured out with a basketball court’s markings, and these also travel up a vertical set piece that serves as a screen for shifting projections: the stadium’s bleacher seats, the half-hemisphere of a basketball, images of Tiananmen Square and student protestors.
In Beijing, Saul and his team will face off against a team coached by Wen Chang (Norman Garcy Yap), who was Saul’s translator in Beijing back in 1971, when he was flown in to help improve the Chinese team. (Their backstory is conveyed through terrific flashback sequences, in which Saul distills an entire decade’s style into one handlebar mustache.) Now, under much more tense circumstances, the two men will meet again.
Yee’s plotting is pleasingly brisk, and her dialogue is smart, snappy, and often raucously obscene. Saul and Manford’s banter is riddled with obscene and inventive insults; in one flashback sequence, Wen Chang memorably tries to interpret Saul’s profanities. (“You copulate on their feces!” he happily translates from “You fuck their shit up.”)
All four characters converse with the fast-paced, up-close blocks and feints of man-on-man basketball play, a conceit that Power’s blocking and this stellar cast make bracingly physical onstage. Characters corner and leap past each other with a relentlessness that makes all the more striking the show’s rare moments of stillness, silence, and indecision.
As the two coaches, Shankman and Yap give superbly contrasting performances. Shankman’s Saul is marvelously without filter, a lovably foul-mouthed jerk with a big heart. In contrast, Yap’s Wen Chang has a more subtle internal dynamic. Initially sunny and comically ingenuous on the surface, by the ’80s Wen Change has more power, cynicism, and game, yet is even more rigid to Party orthodoxy – until, suddenly, he’s not. Yap gives this evolution great poignancy.
And Yamamoto’s Manford is a scrappy, high-speed delight. He careens agilely through Manford’s sarcasm, virtuosity, and teenage irreverence, but also, in important instants, lets us see him processing more complex grief, desire, and moral judgment.
By the time of the big game, the plot’s styles and strands have converged – with some plot points that are a little pat, but winningly so. The climactic gameplay unfolds through a thrillingly swift counterpoint of narration from all four actors. And in some of its most decisive moments, the play lends glorious new life to the ’80s-movie trope of the slow-motion free-throw.
Set as it is in the ’80s, “The Great Leap” also holds the era’s rhythms, some of its slurs (“It’s the whole Charlie Chan clan,” Saul announces when Connie shows up at his gym), and a certain ’80s entertainment ethos: the play effectively melds the genres of sports drama, sitcomic comedy, and tv-mini-series-style melodrama.
That might sound like a lot to mash up. But Yee has a sharp eye, abundant wit, tongue often firmly in cheek, and a solid handle on the play’s larger project: a meditation on what it means, in so many ways, to leap.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Puppets take over Portland
Now through Sept. 25, the international festival Puppets in Portland will feature artists hailing from the Czech Republic, Germany, Kenya, New York, and beyond. Look for marionettes, Butoh-inspired puppet philosophy, and a meditation on war. Visit https://www.puppetsinportland.org/.
Also this week, audiences can travel along with a man named Troy, his momentous decision, and the whole universe he navigates, in “Mars,” a new play by Portland director, actor, playwright, and acting teacher Kevin O’Leary. A work that involves themes of suicide and alcoholism, “Mars” premieres at Portland Stage’s Studio Theatre, Sept. 21–Oct. 1. FMI: https://www.unation.com/event/kevin-olearys-mars-11437898.
And Mad Horse Theatre Company in South Portland starts up its new season next week with the issues-driven “When We Were Young and Unafraid” (Sept. 29-Oct. 23). Set in the pre-Roe 1970s, the show tells of a middle-aged woman who harbors female victims of domestic abuse, until one woman challenges her assumptions about women and their rights. FMI: https://www.madhorse.com/.
— Megan Grumbling