LAUGHING WITH MY MOUTH WIDE OPEN
Andrea Kittelson – LA Examiner
Why do people put on solo shows? I can think of a myriad of reasons, and I write about them in my book How to Put On Your Own One Person Show.
Why did Gwendoline Yeo put on her solo show “Laughing With My Mouth Wide Open”? Well, it seems, if you take the title at face value, it is to give Hollywood a glimpse into her slightly rebellious spirit. If you take the text of her play into account, it is to prove to the world her value.
Her mother almost aborted her, but didn’t, she says at one point during her play, and therein, quite possibly, resides Yeo’s underlying motivation for just about everything.
Yeo is a wonderful actress. You have seen her in “Desperate Housewives” as the maid who has an affair with Carlos; in “24”; “General Hospital;” and “The O.C.” She also stars in AMC’s Broken Trail alongside Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church. She is gorgeous and feisty and exhibits wide emotional range.
So, why does Yeo feel the need to prove her value through the vehicle of the one-woman show? I imagine to achieve a couple of goals: one, to quickly and affordably showcase her acting skills, which are strong; and, another, to market her writing wares. She clearly wants Hollywood to know that she’s not just another pretty actress. She has depth and breadth and skill.
However, Yeo would evince even mightier writing skill with an enhanced use of metaphor. As it stands, Yeo’s form is straightforward, chronological, autobiographical tale. Yeo starts in Singapore and winds up in L.A. She plays various characters from her life – some of them benevolent and others a smidge evil. She unfolds for us a timeline of her days in the East and then in the West in a way that makes us both laugh and feel empathy. But does her tale convey us beyond? Does it transport us? Not entirely.
It is as though Yeo is not striving to shine, as she claims a few times in her lines, but is rather fighting to fit in. Yeo limits her story to the confines of everyday memoir, which ultimately renders her story to be smaller than it (and she) really is.
Had Yeo fully explored the girth of the Chinese zither, which is somewhat of an elephant in the room throughout the play, she might have more fully discovered some hidden truths about her life. The zither would have functioned more sweepingly as a symbol in this story of a young woman’s quest for worth.
After all, the history of the zither is a rich one.
The name zither in Chinese is “gu zheng” which, according to some scholars, means “ancient bamboo argue” – argue because, according to one legend, a particular zither master had only one zither to pass down to his two daughters who both wanted it. He broke the instrument in two, and to his surprise ended up with two even more beautiful-sounding instruments.
And the zither has evolved over time. During the Qin Dynasty, it had only five strings; during the Tang 12 to 13; during the Ming it claimed 15 to 16; and it has 21 to 25 now. While it was once made of bamboo, it is now often comprised of phoenix. Like a country and a people and a life, the zither has grown. And, as it has grown, so has its price.
Had Yeo shared the story of the zither’s journey from Qin Dynasty China to British colonial Singapore and beyond, either in place of, or alongside her own common sojourns in Singapore, San Francisco and L.A., we might have gleaned more about her. Herein lay an important irony: When actors tell their own stories from the first person point of view, we usually learn less about them. We also learn less about ourselves, and many would agree that we go to the theater, primarily, to learn about ourselves.
So, in Yeo’s quest to prove her value, she does indeed prove that she can play a variety of roles entertainingly and well, and she presents her power to pen lines, such as “America’s God seems much nicer” and “All tears are fake if you can see them…”
But, does she affirm that her soul has the resonance of ancient strings? Not completely. Not yet.
Mark St. Amant’s wise direction and Adam Flemming’s projections (both men are of the famed Road Theatre Company) add welcome visual interest and dimension to Yeo’s otherwise linear play. The projections, in fact, are among my favorite elements. They are varied. They are interactive. They are even symbolic because isn’t a life story, after all, just a series of projections?
The Speak and Spell with Phil Lamarr’s voiceover adds whimsy and an ironic touch of heart – the kind that only a battery-operated, plastic toy can add. The Speak and Spell operates as a reminder that in the absence of parental support, we seek fulfillment in play. It represents the battle between Old and New, East and West, poverty and wealth, and education in all its forms.
Ultimately, Gwendoline Yeo shows Hollywood that she is of veritable, marketable worth. For producers seeking to transition from aspiring to formidable, Yeo is likely gold. She is beautiful and tough, and she can act with nuance and aplomb.
But, what I would implore Yeo to do next is to believe more profoundly that she carries within her the same magic of 25 strings, that she has the capacity to convey an audience in the manner of music, and that if she were to break herself in two, she would discover that she is even more beautiful than anyone had previously imagined.
About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.