The title gives the game away. Ornate, noirish and a bit belabored, “Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery” is also surprisingly dramatic in places, as acts of murder are committed with a memorable flourish.
What you don’t expect is the cutting humor in Lloyd Suh’s brilliant and lacerating play, which opened Saturday in a Mu Performing Arts production at the Guthrie Theater.
The two-act production, staged with immediacy and a rich sense of play by Mu artistic director Randy Reyes, is by turns gleeful and serious. The business at hand requires a surgeon’s skill and a comic’s timing. Reyes — who also plays a trickster, Monkey — delivers the goods on both scores.
An unconventional murder mystery that mixes the real and the imagined — the human and the ghostly — “Chan” is set in 1967 as the civil rights and antiwar movements are heating up. Frank (Eric Sharp), an aspiring writer who actually has not written much of anything, decides he wants to start a revolution, but not with bombs or bullets. He wants to use words, in a play, to establish a strong identity for people who at the time were called “Orientals.”
He proclaims proudly that he is “Asian-American.” But he, his girlfriend (Hope Nordquist) and like-minded friends might have to kill a stereotype or two. That’s where Charlie Chan, the fictional character with real-world impact, comes in.
Chan is an inscrutable figure replete with fortune cookie aphorisms. Actor Luverne Seifert, who has the accent and mannerisms down pat, imbues the character with gentility and kindness. He shows us Chan’s mother wit as well as his mangled syntax.
The acting company handles this material — which zigs and zags — with poise. By turns cocksure and self-deprecating, Sharp imbues Frank with the type of gusto you rarely see in an Asian-American character onstage. And the actor, who has expert timing, clearly savors the role.
“Chan,” which runs for about 2½ hours, could easily be condensed. There are two segments in the show where we watch characters apply makeup for long minutes. Both bits could be dispatched more quickly. And too much time is spent on an aside where the house lights come up and a character asks the audience to name one influential Asian-American icon. (No one spoke up at Saturday’s opening.)
The cast includes Stephanie Bertumen and Song Kim — both of whom play multiple roles to conjure a crucible 50 years ago when a cranky artist decided that enough was enough.
Playwright Suh, like other contemporary writers such as Young Jean-Lee (“The Shipment,” “Straight White Men”) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon”), wrestles deftly with troubling things from the past in order to be free in the present. Mu’s production of “Chan” honors his fight.