The current production at La MaMa E.T.C. bears some resemblance to its name: ArchipelaGo! could represent some islands off of which you would like to get voted. Constructed in a series of personal vignettes and "performance art" interludes, the hour-long piece recounts fascinating family tales to little effect. The nine-year-old performance group, SLANT, is comprised of three Asian-American men: Richard Ebihara, Wayland Quintero, and Perry Yung. The show begins with a prolonged prelude of white fog billowing under blue and red lights--with the bare-chested, goggle-wearing trio jaggedly slicing the clouds with their flashlights. Then they gather around a circular table and strap on Asian micro-gongs to continue the wordless scene with music. Before long, though, the action gives way to the text and the mystery diffuses with the fog.
Each performer's family hails from an island (or at least spent some time on one). Yung's Chinese grandfather was imprisoned on Angel Island off of the coast of California; Quintero's Filipino family worked on Hawaiian plantations; and Ebihara's forebears ran a diner on Terminal Island in the Pacific until they were forced out with the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. The stage, then, is literally set with three powerful, personal backgrounds that all Americans (save the Native ones) can connect with as immigrants. The men are physically-fit, apt musicians with a history of explosive, original work as a collective. Perhaps they are resting on their laurels this time around.
Wayland Quintero is a sweet but unsure storyteller, who divulges fond childhood memories of an unmarried Filipino worker who had to pay the famous "ten cents a dance" just to be near a woman. The background is edifying and horrifying: Filipino immigrants, most of whom arrived in Hawaii and California between 1911 and 1920, were not allowed to bring their wives with them to the U.S., and anti-miscegenation laws further prevented them from socializing with white women. Many were left without any companionship or families. Quintero's story is fascinating, but his shaky storytelling is not.
A few scenes later, Richard Ebihara performs an original piano piece about Terminal Island (whose first few notes sound strikingly like Mark Cohn's "Walking In Memphis"). He pauses between verses to tell the story of his grandfather who owned a diner that catered to the early-morning cannery workers, shipyard men and other hard laborers. He was given 48 hours to evacuate when the U.S. government began interning Japanese Americans during WWII. Again, this scene has promise as a history lesson, but never catches fire as a piece of theater.
It is the wiry Perry Yung who finally ushers some magic onto the stage. In a children's show sketch, he creates an ancient shakuhachi flute onstage. Traditionally carved out of bamboo and punctured with a hot stick, this flute is created out of "local" materials: a plastic pipe and a power drill. In the creation of this instrument, Yung captures the history of his heritage and yanks it into a contemporary experience--a swirl of ancient Chinese flutes reverberating with the city subway's warm wind. It is beautiful.
As their seventh original production, ArchipelaGo! was designed for audiences of all ages--a new demographic for SLANT. When they began in 1995, the group's premiere gig was Big Dicks, Asian Men and their repertoire was clearly edgier and more flamboyant. "To adapt to the needs of family-friendly theater," La MaMa explains, "SLANT is a bit heavier on the puppetry and toy monkeys, and light on the language. Gone are the double-entendres." Unfortunately, while letting the kids in, SLANT has let the charisma out.