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Theatre Reviews Exceptional set design and magical moments make The Great Leap mostly a winner

Despite his small stature, Manford (Milton Lim) is a Chinese-American high school senior basketball wunderkind.

Pink Monkey Studios

  • The Great Leap
  • Directed by Meg Roe
  • Written by Lauren Yee
  • Starring Toby Berner, Milton Lim, Jovanni Sy and Agnes Tong
  • Set Design by Heipo C.H. Leung
  • Projection Design by Chimerik; Projection Design Director Sammy Chien
  • Lighting Design by John Webber
  • Sound Design by Alessandro Juliani
  • Produced by the Arts Club Theatre Company
  • At the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre in Vancouver until May 19

rating

An educated guess tells me that many Canadians may have a bit of basketball on the brain these days. (Go, Raptors.) A wannabe brainy take on the game – as well as international and familial relations – is Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap, which is having its Canadian premiere at the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver.

The play is set primarily in the spring of 1989 – long before the Toronto Raptors made it to this year’s Eastern Conference semi-finals, or were even much of a twinkle in the NBA’s eye – as a fictional basketball summit is about to take place between China and the U.S. It is a rematch of sorts. The coach from San Francisco met the coach from Beijing during a 1971 trip, when the U.S. team demolished the Chinese team. The story goes back and forth in time, especially in the first act, deftly handled by the two actors who play themselves 18 years apart (with extra help, in one case, of a wig.)

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But the real star of this show is the staging and the design.

The play is elevated by the exceptional projection, sound and lighting design.

Pink Monkey Studios

Manford (Milton Lim) is a Chinese-American high school senior basketball wunderkind, despite his small stature. He has learned from a newspaper article that San Francisco’s university team is travelling to China in the spring for what’s billed as a friendly game that will be televised live back in the U.S. Manford stalks the U.S. team’s coach – the foul-mouthed has-been Saul (Toby Berner), begging him to let him on the team. Saul is not interested, but finally relents after witnessing Manford’s great (but inexplicable) talent.

In Beijing, Saul will be reunited with the Party member he helped train to become a coach back in 1971, Wen Chang (Jovanni Sy), a former translator. Saul figures it will be an easy win for the Americans – something he desperately needs to save his own sagging career. But Manford’s cousin Connie (Agnes Tong), an Asian Studies university student (and not Manford’s cousin by blood), is plugged in to what’s happening in China – and she knows that the country is now producing many fine (and very tall) players.

She is also well aware of the precarious political situation in China, with the eruption of student protests.

And wouldn’t you know it, the big game is scheduled for June 4 – known to anyone with any knowledge of Chinese history as the date troops entered Tiananmen Square and fired on civilians to end the demonstrations. That collision produced one of the most powerful images in political history: the lone protester standing up to the row of military tanks in the square. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (the social and economic policies he rapidly implemented to disastrous effect) had come to an ugly standstill.

This far-fetched basketball/Tiananmen Square parallel and some other clunkers in the script – including a twist in the plot that you can see coming for miles – chip away at this production’s many successes.

The script has some very funny and some authentically tender moments. Certainly the political context is fascinating and the basketball content is a bonus, if that’s your thing. (Some of it definitely went over my head.)

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The cast is very good: Berner as Coach Saul giving a bus-ride pep talk to his team while eating a foul-tasting Chinese Popsicle is a particular delight. At one point earlier in the show, I could see Sy’s shoulders shaking with laughter (he was offstage, sitting courtside) as he watched Berner’s performance. Even the actors are having a blast.

And all of this is elevated by the exceptional projection, sound and lighting design.

The show is presented alley-style – much like a basketball game, with rows of seats facing each other and divided by a rectangular stage that becomes a basketball court (and many other settings), thanks to projections created by the interdisciplinary design collective Chimerik. There are no nets, but screens at either end, for scene titles – in at least one case, used to hilarious effect – and other visuals.

There are some magical moments – most notably a basketball sequence that pits Manford against his own history. (This scene is wonderful, but goes on too long.)

And it doesn’t always work. When lighting is projected onto Manford as he stands in Tiananmen Square, the effect did not pop, and seemed to confuse more than affect the audience.

The vibrant soundtrack highlights scene breaks, underscores asides, and enriches various settings.

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Meg Roe’s innovative direction and the full-court-press design wizardry don’t always make up for the shortcomings of the script, but The Great Leap is great fun, and if you can suspend your disbelief, it feels mostly like a winner.

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