Delight in Dysfunction

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Elizabeth Ho, center, stars as the title character in "Grace Kim and the Spiders From Mars," backed by, from left, Hanson Tse, Jully Lee, Feodor Chin and Rachel Morihiro. (Photo: Nic Cha Kim/Lodestone Theatre Ensemble)

Elizabeth Ho, center, stars as the title character in "Grace Kim and the Spiders From Mars," backed by, from left, Hanson Tse, Jully Lee, Feodor Chin and Rachel Morihiro. (Photo: Nic Cha Kim/Lodestone Theatre Ensemble)

By KATHLEEN TAKARABE
special to the rafu

After staging innovative, cutting edge Asian American productions for more than a decade, Lodestone Theatre Ensemble founders Phillip Chung and Chil Kong have decided to close their doors, but to go out with a bang with their final production.

“Grace Kim and the Spiders from Mars,” written by Chung and directed by Jeff Liu is a delightful holiday gift sure to please, and in some cases, to surprise. It runs through Dec. 20 at the Grove Theater Center in Burbank.

Given Lodestone’s reputation for pushing the boundaries, I had certain expectations for what “Grace Kim” would hold. There were no overt sexual scenes, no murders, no cannibalism; in fact, there weren’t even any spiders in the play.

Sure, the title character felt like she was from another planet, and she certainly came across as an eccentric blacksheep of the family, but she turned out to be quite down to earth. I would describe some of Lodestone’s past productions as dark, even twisted, leaving me uncomfortable at times, but to my pleasant surprise, I found this production heartwarming, poignant, and fun.

“Grace Kim and the Spiders from Mars” is the story of a Korean American family gathering at Christmas time. It has all the makings of a typical home-for-the-holidays blockbuster film: a dysfunctional family, the introducing of a controversial fiancée, the sister falling for the fiancée…all unraveling among perfectly wrapped presents and the glow of the Christmas tree.

It’s a story we’ve seen before, but not quite in this way. The drama of the moment is lightened with campy dream sequences and sexual innuendos. There are numerous pop culture musical references that dominate the show, defining the characters and the significant moments. The cultural overtones open the door for fun laughs as well as a look at Asian American issues we don’t get to see in most mainstream shows.

To be certain, Lodestone has not abandoned its edgy reputation for this swansong. Though sitcom-like in delivery, the mature content would likely not be permitted on network television.

The dialog is detailed, quick-witted and metaphorical, delivered in a timely comedic fashion. Overall, the characters are believable and relatable. Several characters may seem too strong, perhaps overdramatic. However, the consistency in performance and contrast to the other distinct personas leads to a convincing family system that is quite entertaining to watch. Conflicts ensue within a family that only seems united while watching their favorite Korean soap opera.

Grace herself wishes that life were like a musical, complete with a happy ending. Elizabeth Ho skillfully pulls off this quirky, conflicted character on her journey. Hanson Tse is convincing as the charming fiancée to Maisy, a somewhat stereotypical Korean American (Elaine Kao). Supporting actors provide comic relief with amusing characters and funny lines.

Though the play is not a musical, music plays an important role, whether referencing song titles, the impact of lyrics, or being sung in an unusual dream. The performers are clearly actors who sing, and not the reverse. Ho herself seems to have a strong voice that is not fully utilized. Kao’s soft voice at times seemed to lack confidence, though it did resemble the more quiet character, which she played convincingly.

Occasionally, some of the songs lost their identity and meaning without backup music and one musical number seemed to lag. Overall, the music was a creative tool used to inform, as well as depict the main character’s growth.

“Grace Kim” is about personal journeys, choices, endings and beginnings. As Grace must face a change of seasons, so too must this production company. To every ending, there comes opportunity for new beginning. This production is a wonderful ending for Lodestone. Philip Chung, the co-artistic director, considers “Grace Kim and the Spiders of Mars” a gift to the audience that has supported Lodestone through the years. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas, a gift worth opening this season. “Grace Kim” will be permanently retired after this run, so be sure to unwrap it before Christmas.

“Grace Kim and the Spiders of Mars” runs through Dec. 20 at the Grove Theater Center, 1111-B W. Olive Ave. in Burbank. Tickets are available at www.lodestonetheatre.org or by calling (323) 993-7245.

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