Thread: Hollywood Reporter
designer-makeup artist Stephen Legawiec and his Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble
are dedicated theatrical visionaries as they continue to explore the
cross-cultural boundaries and span generations in their continuing search
to dramatize world culture, myth and ritual within the dramatic art
All this may sound a bit esoteric, but it's not. "Red Thread"
is an inventive, lively, vigorous, visually stunning piece of work.
Credit Robert Velasquez for the lush costumes, Leif Gantvoort for the
moody lighting and Susan Christiansen for the original music.
A world premiere, "Red Thread" is 90 minutes long (without
an intermission) and tells the 1,200-year-old story of China's legendary
Renzhe, a hired assassin. All starts in the Eastern Province court of
governor Xu Song (Luis Zambrano), who, in order to create a political
alliance with his rival governor of the Southeastern Province, Tian
Chengsi (Dean Purvis), offers his daughter Xia (Michelle Tenazas) in
marriage to Tian Yong (Sebastian Kunnappilly), the son of Tian Chengsi.
But the wily and nefarious Tian Chengsi has plans to take over the realm
of Xu Song. And in order to protect himself, Xu Song sends his loyal
servant and assassin Red Thread (Jenny Woo) to murder Tian Chengsi and
thus avert a political disaster in China.
Unbeknownst to Xu Song, Red Thread has her own secret agenda: She has
converted to Buddhism and wants to give up her life as an assassin.
Only if she does, the fate of all of China will be threatened.
Legawiec spins a tale that is full of onstage awe and wonder, including
lots of deft swordplay, martial arts daring, a Buddhist goddess (Yelena
Strelkoff), a silk dancer (Elena Goss) and even a magician (Hamzah Kasom).
The ensemble is first-rate. Add strong support from Ogie Zulueta (as
Ji Gong, the court minister to Xu Song), Garon Michaels (as Chang, the
warrior servant to Tian Chengsi), Dian Kobayashi (as the old woman/poet),
Emily Liu (as the young Hongxian) and Angie Lieuw (as the new Renzhe).
Sightings - Backstage West
A Red Thread
Runs Through It
exists in such an eternally precarious state of valetudinarianism that
observers keep predicting its imminent demise. Memorably someone (maybe
George Jean Nathan, who'll know the difference?) long ago dubbed theatre
"the fabulous invalid." Theatre was always dying, never dead.
Someone else wrote a play based on that premise, with that title—The
Fabulous Invalid. I called on my colleague, somewhat younger contemporary,
and archival authority T.H. McCulloh for the playwright's name. He provided
interesting information: The play debuted on Broadway in 1938, its prestigious
cast including Doris Dowling, Richard Gordon, and Stephen Courtleigh.
McCulloh couldn't remember who wrote it, and his reference book ignored
the playwright. Bartlett's was no help; it ignored the fabulous invalid
and forgotten author altogether. So much for playwrights! So much for
a year it was on Broadway. Making their Broadway debuts in 1938 were
Our Town, Golden Boy, Orson Welles' Julius Caesar, Abe Lincoln in Illinois,
The Shoemaker's Holiday, Outward Bound, Somerset Maugham's The Circle,
The Merchant of Yonkers, Babes in Arms. I go through my file of L.A.
theatre reviews back to 1980, and I find years there that also are magnificent,
and thrilling to remember.
is introduction to my unbounded enthusiasm for the creativity, originality,
dedication, and (I dare say) genius of a too-little-known actor/writer/director/scholar
who seemingly with little concern for acclaim or reward creates thrilling
theatre just for the satisfaction of doing it and who convinces us there's
life in the fabulous old invalid theatre yet. He is Stephen Legawiec,
founder and head of Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble. His current production,
Red Thread, plays at Gascon Theatre Center, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver
City, through June 16. It is a Critic's Pick in Back Stage West, Pick
of the Week in L.A. Weekly, and Critics Choice in the L.A. Times. Daringly
different, original, purely and artfully conceived, stunningly beautiful,
exciting, it could leave you speechless.
conceived, researched, wrote, and directed Red Thread, auteur style.
He told me, "We've been practicing martial arts for six months.
[Red Thread is] based on a 1,200-year-old Chinese story from the Tang
Dynasty, an adventure story with a secret-identity theme and lots of
martial arts. As Hong Xian Steals the Gold it is used frequently in
Chinese opera. Last September I went to China and visited the Peking
Opera. I consulted with Leonard Pronko, a well-known expert on Chinese
and Japanese drama, who teaches at Pomona College. There's a lot of
similarity to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's a theme
that occurs often in Chinese opera. But Red Thread has a unique energy;
and there's singing in it. It's important that our plays are accessible
to our audiences."
is breathtakingly beautiful to look at. The "silk dance" performed
by Elena Goss is amazing. As its heroine, Jenny Woo's quiet, expert
skill in martial and thespian arts wins admiration for a tour-de-force
performance. Michelle Tenazas imbues her petulant princess with humor
and sings with a voice of shimmering beauty. Ogie Zulueta is delightfully
comic. Yelena Strelkoff's Guan Yin, goddess of mercy, appears on a lotus
blossom in the mouth of a dragon. It's spellbinding. Dany Margolies'
review (Back Stage West, 5/16/02) praised the "majestic production"
for its blend of fairytale, musical theatre, and martial arts. The L.A.
Times' Don Shirley called it "enchanting." The Weekly's Neal
Weaver termed its martial arts "electrifying."
(you'd never guess how to pronounce his name—Le-GAHV-yetz—has
to be Polish, spelled like that, pronounced like that) is the son of
noted composer/violinist Walter Legawiec. Stephen was inspired by world
myths and legends to found Ziggurat Theatre "to celebrate our collective
past [through theatre that] explores world culture and ritual…."
His Ziggurat is assurance that that fabulous invalid theatre is thrillingly
the brightly hued vision of writer/director Stephen Legawiec comes this
majestic production. Combining fairy tales, musical theatre, and martial
arts to eclectic effect--well, Peking Opera if we must--the production
somehow manages to also include intelligent and effective acting. An
older woman (Dian Kobayashi in a melodious rendering) narrates the Tang
Dynasty tale of an assassin--Red Thread (we won't spoil the lovely surprise,
which comes early enough, anyway)--who protects a governor (crisply
portrayed by Luis Zambrano) and his family from invasion under the orders
of the neighboring province's governor (Dean Purvis in menacing mode)
and his henchman (a sturdy Garon Michael). The governors' children marry:
the bookworm prince (a subtly arcing Sebastian Kunnappilly) to the annoyingly
bratty princess (Michelle Tenazas, who likewise comfortably makes her
understated set, battles are fought, visions manifested, gardens strolled,
and wedding entertainments presented. The pacing of the dialogue is
un-American, however, unfolding more lyrically than for the convenience
of our busy evening. The otherworldly lighting, by Leif Gantvoort, shimmers
over the silks and leathers, brocades and quilts of costumer Robert
Velasquez. Credited to fight directors Tim Storms, Matt Emery, and Eric
Chen, the combat includes impeccably rendered hand-to-hand throws and
break falls, sticks, and sword work. None of this could have been learned
just for this production: The attacks, defenses, and falls seem ingrained
in these actors. As if this were not enough, wedding entertainers include
a silk dancer grappling high above the stage (Elena Goss), a magician
(Hamzah Kasom), and a Chinese folk dancer (Angie Lieuw). With Susan
Christiansen's original music, the multi-threat cast also sings: Noteworthy
here are the silver-voiced Tenazas and the bold-voiced Purvis.
we meet on this silk road include a ferocious martial arts master (Constance
Hsu), an imposing goddess (Yelena Strelkoff), and a struggling young
warrior (Emily Liu). Providing ample comic relief, playing the court
minister as a mouse-like clown, Ogie Zulueta displays delicious timing,
occasionally toying with the audience. But the show belongs to Jenny
Woo, maid to the governor and princess, whose talents cannot be contained
by the small stage. Topping her particularly smooth martial arts technique
and tumbling skills, her characterization balances the highly stylized
work of the production with a richly rendered inner life. Hers is a
character we believe in, admire, thrill for, and remember.
Hongxian (Jenny Woo) is the lowly maidservant of Governor Xu Song (Luis
Zambrano). By night, she is the fierce, masked, scarlet-clad warrior
known as Red Thread, sworn to protect her master. But Hongxian is faced
with a moral dilemma. Just as she begins a reluctant conversion from
the fierce warrior code to the peaceable Dharma way, her master arranges
an alliance with treacherous rival governor Tian Chengsi (Dean Purvis),
who’s secretly plotting war. How can Hongxian reconcile her new
beliefs with the bloody necessities required to save China? Writer-director
Stephen Legawiec’s exotic piece is part legend, part folktale
and part martial-arts epic. There’s an ancient poet with a secret
(Dian Kobayashi), a hilarious low-comedy courtier (Ogie Zulueta), a
pair of combative young lovers (Michelle Tenazas and Sebastian Kunnappilly),
a magic act and a host of spectacular athletic feats. The electrifying
martial-arts sequences, superbly choreographed by Tim Storms, Matt Emery
and Eric Chen, are more exciting than their movie counterparts because
they’re performed live, without camera tricks or retakes. Stylized
makeup and the gorgeous brocades of Robert Velazquez’s costumes
dazzle the eye, as Susan Christiansen’s Chinese-flavored music
beguiles the ear. Ziggurat Theater Ensemble, Gascon Theater Center,
8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.;
thru June 16. (310) 842-5737.\
'Red Thread' by Ziggurat
The graceful and lean stage presentation is reminiscent of the stylized
film 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Tiger, Hidden Dragon" brought the martial arts genre to the attention
of Western moviegoers who had hardly noticed it, the enchanting "Red
Thread" could do the same for Los Angeles theatergoers.
Writer, director and set designer Stephen Legawiec may not appreciate
a comparison of his new play to a movie. He told a Times interviewer
he believes that film lacks theater's spiritual dimension.
Still, with a female protagonist who's secretly a trained assassin but
publicly plays a very different role within an ancient Chinese court--which
is rife with intrigue--comparisons are unavoidable. And although the
Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble production at Culver City's Gascon Center
Theatre lacks the film's treetop fights, some of the other comparisons
may well be in the play's favor.
Adapting an old Chinese tale, Legawiec gives his heroine a burning personal
conflict. She has just become a follower of the imported new religion
of Buddhism, and its nonviolent precepts don't jibe with her violent
Her dilemma reaches a boiling point after her boss, who has just married
off his daughter to another governor's son, learns of a treacherous
plot by his daughter's new father-in-law.
Legawiec frames the story through a present-day narrator (Dian Kobayashi).
She seldom strays from the side of the stage, but we eventually learn
that she has a secret of her own.
The stage is generally bare but alive in color and shadow (lighting
design by Leif Gantvoort). The back panels divide for presentations
of flashback scenes from the life of the heroine. Richly brocaded costumes
by Robert Velasquez and elaborate makeup enhance the sense of simple
Susan Christiansen's lush music combines Western and Chinese strains.
Although largely prerecorded, with a sound that's a little too electronic
on occasion, the score also includes one beautifully staged number that's
The martial arts scenes are performed with solemn gravity and pristine
grace. The wedding ceremony includes an acrobatic silk dance by Elena
Goss and a magic act.
Even outside the fight scenes, the cast moves with a stylized polish
that indicates months of training. Jenny Woo is a wiz in both contrasting
sides of the central character. Luis Zambrano and Dean Purvis are commanding
as the rival governors. Michelle Tenazas and Sebastian Kunnappilly play
the amusing young marrieds, while Ogie Zulueta is a marvel as a cocky,
Except for one awkward transition between scenes, the play moves quickly,
with no intermission and very little fat. This is a remarkably accessible
yarn from one of L.A. theater's most adventurous talents.