“I will win you games. I will score you points. I will shoot from half court, full court. I will shoot over whatever, whenever, whoever is getting in my way.”
So begins hotheaded 17-year-old Manford Lum’s (James Aaron Oh) fiery pitch to Saul Slezac (Tim Kniffin), the disgruntled, dismissive coach of the University of San Francisco basketball team, in Lauren Yee’s play “The Great Leap.” Saul had visited Peking University 18 years prior and helped the school establish its own basketball team. Now, in the year 1989, he’s received an invitation to bring his team to Beijing for a “friendship game” — and Manford, the self-described “most feared player in Chinatown,” wants in.
Manford doesn’t know how to quit — a trait that propels yet haunts him throughout the play — and neither does Oh, whose passionate, humorously arrogant monologue in the electrifying opening scene set expectations high for the rest of the evening. Oh’s unrelenting energy and chemistry with Kniffin echoed throughout The Stage. Indeed, one of the first things audiences noticed about this production was the raw talent of its cast.
Oh and Kniffin effortlessly captured their characters’ defining traits, the former as a naive but stubbornly ambitious teen and the latter a foul-mouthed, brash basketball coach worn down by the challenges of work and family life. Monica Ho, who played Manford’s 25-year-old cousin Connie, gave a performance that excellently portrayed youthful cheerfulness and sisterly care and support.
Perhaps the most outstanding performance of the night, however, was Alex Hsu. The actor played Wen Chang, Saul’s former protege who was appointed coach of the Peking University basketball team. The tricky role essentially required Hsu to embody two characters: a timid, innocent young student molded into quiet submission by life in Communist China, and an older, wizened man who has grown more self-assured while remaining under the political party’s boot. An actor playing Wen Chang needed to bridge an 18-year gap of unseen character development, and Hsu did it with ease. He brought charming greenness to his younger character and summoned nuanced strength and steadiness to his older one, playing both so well and so completely that one might forget this is one actor.
Jeffrey Lo’s direction was also spectacular. “The Great Leap” takes place on a set that doesn’t change with only four actors moving about the space. Though it makes minimal use of props, the play never stopped being captivating and exciting. This production relied heavily on the audience’s imagination; the story was told equally by what was there as what was not, but the story was never confusing.
As an audience member, there is a sense of beauty in participating in the building of the fictional world being constructed in real-time in front of you. It creates a reality different for each viewer while the theater is collectively following an outstanding foundation for this imagination.
The climactic scene in the play relied on this beautiful phenomenon the most. With everyone on stage, all four characters offered snappy, fast-paced dialogue and their own perspectives on this tense and riveting scene. In addition to being held up by dynamic directing, this scene and all of the play were supported by thoughtful and witty writing.
Yee’s writing was equal parts hilarious and gutting, spanning the spectrum of emotions and reflecting each with ease. Each character had a distinct voice shaped by their unique personality and past. The playwright wove a deeply entertaining and tragic story about political tensions, identity and family, absorbing audiences into a world totally foreign to most, and made it enthralling and relatable.
Nailing every aspect of production and an outpour of talent from every direction, “The Great Leap” absolutely soars.
“The Great Leap” will be performed at San Jose Stage Company (The Stage) until Oct. 17. Tickets can be found here.