|From Singapore to San Francisco, Desperate Housewives actress Gwendoline Yeo navigates her difficult childhood and awkward adolescence with the help of a loyal Speak N’ Spell, her beloved zither and a keen wit that will leave audiences smiling.
Bridging the cultural divide that thrusts Gwendoline in a paradoxical relationship with her parents, her peers and ultimately, herself, this coming of age story reveals the hardship and the triumph for the youngest child in a family riddled with competition and filial supremacy. Humorous, yet frank and biting, Gwendoline deftly plays each of her family members with excellent specificity and charming deprecation.
Yeo owns the intimate space surrounded by several large framed screens projected with family photos, cityscapes and other visually accompanying scenes designed by Adam Flemming. Her direct, conversational style plays well in the 50-seat space, disarming and engaging the audience with a cheeky, mischievous attitude that is both infectious, while at times, raw and personal. Inspired by true events, Yeo infuses her unique journey as an outsider trying to belong with a satiric bent, juxtaposing her struggle with identity, disillusionment and a dysfunctional family obsessed by ambition.
Family plays a vital role from which Yeo plumbs the eccentricities of her distinctly funny characters with marvelous caricature especially when she transitions from one to the next with seamless dexterity. From her rigid, domineering father, to her urban cowboy brother, accommodating sister and submissive mother—who rarely laughs with her mouth wide open, each one becomes a legitimate player in their own right. Yeo demonstrates a chameleonic nimbleness in confrontational dinner scenes and a terse graduation of a newly blended family with consistent body language and markedly pronounced accents in “Singlish.” The overall effect is multi-layered and dynamic.
Along with her family, Yeo incorporates other memorable characters such as an insensitive parochial school principal, a high school Asian-gangsta wannbe, and a supportive neighbor who plays a key role in Yeo’s success and independence by encouraging her to enter into the Miss Chinatown pageant. The road for Yeo is winding, occasionally serendipitous, but it provides plenty of the comedic fodder as well as her more tenderly wrought emotional scenes.
A darker, sexual element threatens to sink the otherwise buoyant show when an esteemed professor (voiceover by Phil LaMarr) uses money and power to manipulate Yeo into “modeling” for him. The otherwise crisp pace directed by Mark St. Amant slows to a crawl but the resolution is not nearly effective enough to warrant the overly drawn-out disrobing scene.
Halfway through the show, Yeo displays her zither-playing abilities in a mesmerizing number that blends contemporary flourishes to a traditional sound.
Yeo’s one-woman show developed from radio recently enjoyed critical acclaim at the Denver Center Theatre as part of its Stories on Stage series and is sure to leave Angelenos smiling.
“Laughing With My Mouth Wide Open”
Runs through Dec 19
Thurs, Fri and Sat at 8pm
Sundays at 7pm
El Centro Theatre
804 N. El Centro Avenue
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