nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
June 15, 2007
Yin and Yang battle it out for control of martial arts legend Bruce Lee's soul in Soomi Kim and Derek Nguyen's excellent new play, Lee/gendary. Set inside the action movie superstar's mind, Lee/gendary takes the audience on a hallucinatory trek through its namesake's short but fast life as he tries to find a harmonious balance between fame and enlightenment (i.e., Yin and Yang). It's a fascinating journey that is punctuated in director Suzi Takahashi's production by a dynamic performance by Kim as Bruce Lee.
Wait a minute: a woman plays Bruce Lee? Oh, you betcha. And, let me tell you: she kicks ass (if you'll pardon my French).
Lee/gendary traces Lee's beginnings as a proverbial 98-pound weakling all the way through to his international stardom, with all the requisite trials and tribulations along the way. Partially raised by his parents as a girl—he was given a girl's name at birth (Sai Fung, which means "small phoenix"), and had a pierced ear in his youth—Lee overcame peer pressure and school bullies by learning martial arts and becoming a skilled combatant. He then embarked on an iconic crossover acting career that encompassed American television (The Green Hornet) and global film stardom (Enter the Dragon). He also became a poster child for ideal physical fitness, invented his own martial arts system, and trained high profile celebrities like Steve McQueen and James Coburn.
But, Lee had his share of troubles. Even though he was a dedicated family man, there were rumors of a longtime extra-marital affair with Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei as well as drub abuse. Lee/gendary addresses it all with style and panache.
Kim and Nguyen piece the show together through a tapestry of dance, movement, found and scripted text, and combat. There's a canny reenactment of Lee's television interview with Canadian broadcaster Pierre Berton in which the star smoothly expresses his desire to have it all. Later in the play, Lee surprisingly tells the audience that he will always stay by his wife's side, but that Betty Ting Pei "will always be the one who makes me feel like a man." The creators also make Lee's Yin and Yang characters in the play who vie for the protagonist's attention throughout. Lee/gendary culminates in a spectacular fight scene in which Lee must battle one of them—and, in essence, himself—quite literally to the death.
The fights themselves are quite impressive, as the company has reconstructed them straight from Lee's movies. Takahashi adds a splendid humorous element by making the cast lip-synch to the dialogue and music soundtrack from the films themselves. Highlights include Lee's single-handed thrashing of a group of thugs from The Chinese Connection, and his infamous battle royale with Kareem Abdul-Jabaar from Game of Death.
Then, there is Kim, who is outstanding as Lee. Hers is a convincing performance of rigorous physicality and impressive commitment. She scores big points in the case for non-traditional gender casting by showing that the key to such successes lies in having the right attitude. Oh boy, does she have the attitude! As Lee himself says early in the play, "Champions are made from something inside them." Kim's performance proves that.