Playwright: Michael Golamco. At: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln. Phone: 773-871-3000; $30-$48. Runs through Oct. 18
Let me offer a belated apology to Victory Gardens Theater. Back in a 2007 review of The Magic Cabaret, I incorrectly stated that an upstairs rehearsal room at Victory Gardens' Biograph Theater was the company's incomplete studio theater.
Victory Gardens has now unveiled its true studio space with the world premiere of Michael Golamco's drama Year Zero. This 120-seat theater promises to be a vital addition not only for Victory Gardens, but also for the Chicago theater scene.
Too bad that Golamco's Year Zero doesn't fully live up to this auspicious occasion, or its own potential. Year Zero is a product of Victory Gardens' Ignition: Emerging Playwrights of Color initiative, which aims to promote and produce works by minority playwrights and artists ( Victory Gardens current main stage show, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, is also an Ignition product ) .
Golamco's heart is in the right place with Year Zero, but he aims at too many targets. Cambodian-American characters deal with not only the legacy of their native country's genocidal past under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, but with the difficulties they face from gangs and heightened expectations to succeed in their adopted country. Read more story below....
Year Zero's main protagonist is the awkward 16-year-old Vuthy Vichea ( an enjoyable Joyee Lin ) . Vuthy largely gets all A's in his diverse high school in Long Beach, Calif., but is also constantly bullied at school. He's also coping with the recent death of his mother in a very odd way: He secretly talks to a human skull he swiped while visiting a Cambodian death camp museum.
Vuthy's med-student older sister, Ra ( a very-understated Jennifer Shin ) , isn't much help. Back in town to clean out the family home, Ra refuses to take Vuthy in to live with her and her condescending Chinese-American boyfriend, Glenn ( a merely adequate Allan Aquino ) , in Berkeley, Calif.
Helping to stoke lingering questions about Vuthy and Ra's deceased mother is hunky neighbor and ex-con, Han ( a low-key Tim Chiou ) . Han is not only a family friend and former gang member ( note his many tattoos ) , but he vaguely remembers some of the chaos and confusion of Cambodia as a child.
Since Golamco's meandering script doesn't raise the dramatic stakes compellingly enough, director Andrea J. Dymond doesn't really draw out showy performances from her cast.
At least the production is handsomely designed, particularly Richard and Jacqueline Penrod's domestic set design that allows Cambodia's disturbing past to literally materialize high over the characters' heads.
Though Year Zero is stuffed with enlightening insights to its Asian-American characters, it comes off more as a worthy educational experience rather than an entertaining drama. But in terms of giving voice to underrepresented minorities in American culture, Year Zero does its job.