The Great Leap creative team creates a winner by A.C.T.

With a banner of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in the background, Wen Chang (BD Wong) takes notes on the American-style basketball coaching of Saul Slezak (Arye Gross) in “The Great Leap.” Photo by Kevin Berne.

The Great Leap: Comedy by Lauren Yee. Directed by Lisa Peterson. American Conservatory Theater, A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, CA.  415-749-2228 or  March 6-31, 2019

The Great Leap creative team creates a winner by A.C.T. Rating: ★★★★★

Basketball as a metaphor for life may seem like a far stretch and it is but A.C.T.’s brilliant production of Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap might make you a believer.  China’s Mao Tso Tung labelled the Cultural Revolution as “The Great Leap Forward” converting an agrarian society to an industrialized powerhouse. The “leap forward” in Lauren Yee’s play that is receiving a spectacular staging at A.C.T.’s Geary Street Theater suggests that cataclysmic change has similar qualities to the personal lives of her characters.

It starts out in 1989 San Francisco with Manford (Tim Liu) fanatically attempting to be selected as a member of an American basketball team, coached by Saul (Arye Gross), getting ready to compete against Beijing University in a “friendship” game.” Fortunately, although Manford is less than six feet tall, he is the best point guard in the city.  Manford after convincing coach Saul that he can throw 100 consecutive free throws without missing the hoop and because he has the drive (aggressiveness) to motivate his teammates Saul relents. Yee has written some very salty dialog that is wrapped in humor to give the show a taste of what is to come.

The play is non-linear moving between 1989 during the students revolt in Tienanmen Square and 1971 when Saul’s University of San Francisco team has been playing in China and Wen Chang (BD Wong) the interpreter has been ordered to learn the intricacies of the American game from Saul. There is mention of an attractive six foot two inch tall female ball player that Wen admires. This incident telegraphs a major plot line written into act two.  Before Saul leaves he intuitively knows that Wen will become coach of the U of Beijing team, “but you will never beat an American team!”

Fast forward to 1989 and Saul’s team arrives in China and Manford is filmed in Tienanmen Square with a U.S.A. tee shirt as the students around him shouting “U.S. of A.” Wen is forced to ban Manford from the game and they have a confrontation that suggests there is an unspoken relationship between them.

The play is very well written and Manford’s motivations for going to China are plausible but questionable.

BD Wong creates a fully rounded character of Wen Chang who has risen from the ranks of laborer to a low level leader in the party by “never being the first in line but always number two or three behind.”  The turmoil that Manford has created is the start of the downfall of Wen and BD Wong makes you feel the turmoil of Wen and Yee has written a heart wrenching final scene.

It is rather serendipitous that Arye Gross plays Saul since his language is appropriately gross and he milks that characterization to the nth degree. Never-the-less you will be cheering for him in the climactic penultimate scene with only seconds left on the play clock. Tim Liu makes you feel Manford’s aggressiveness hiding insecurity yet being strong enough to follow his desires to go to China for reasons other than play basketball.

The character of Connie, Manford’s cousin, a graduate student who has studied in China is a necessary plot construction and Rubio Qian brings her level headedness firmly to life.

The Great Leap earns a solid “should see” rating because of the expert creative team consisting of Robert Brill (Scenic Designer), Meg Neville (Costume Designer), Vi Zhao (Lighting Designer), Jake Rodriguez (Sound Design) and Hana Sooyeon Kim (Video Designer).  They are able to make a basketball story seem real with no basketball court or hoop and only one ball. Yet you can visualize the game as you hear the bounce of the ball, squeak of the shoes and see the arc of ball projected on a rear stage screen as it traverses space to enter an imaginary hoop.

Director Lisa Peterson is to be admired allowing the spectacular visuals, sound and lighting to be additive and not distracting to the very appreciative audience on opening night. Running time one hour and 30 minutes with an intermission.

CAST:  BD Wong  as “Wen Chang”;  Arye Gross as “Saul”; Tim Liu as “Manford”; Ruibo Qian as “Connie.”

CREATIVE TEAM: Robert Brill (Scenic Designer), Meg Neville (Costume Designer), Vi Zhao (Lighting Designer), Jake Rodriguez (Sound Design and Hana Sooyeon Kim (Video Designer).

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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