Yellow Fever: oddly conceived, well performed

publicity photo: Yellow Fever

Agnes Tong and Hiro Kanagawa get INTO it in Yellow Fever. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

There’s some very nice work in the Firehall Art Centre’s production of Yellow Fever, but, under Donna Spencer’s direction, the production always feels slightly out of focus.

Rick Shiomi’s film-noir style script is about Sam Shikaze, a classically hardboiled detective who works on and around Powell Street. It’s 1973 and the recently crowned Cherry Blossom Queen seems to have been kidnapped. Sam’s on the case and a pesky young newspaper reporter named Nancy Wing is tailing him looking for a scoop. At least Sam treats Nancy like she’s pesky — but then the romantic sparks start to fly.

First question: Why is director Spencer presenting this theatrical script as a radio play complete with visible foley (sound effects) artists? In her program notes, the director attempts an answer. Spencer says that she initially envisioned the piece when theatres were in lockdown; she thought she’d do it online as a staged radio play. Okay. Maybe in Zoom squares … But, when she realized she could mount it in a theatre, she writes, “we decided to go forward with the radio play concept still in mind.” Okay, but why? The circumstances have changed. “Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting in a comfy chair,” Spencer suggests. But I don’t go to the theatre to spend the evening with my eyes closed! And Spencer doesn’t really want us to keep our eyes closed, either: the evening she presents has a lot going on visually. Her foundational choice looks fuzzy headed to me.

And her handling of the convention is wobbly. (Shiomi may also have contributed to this.) In this adapted version of the script, the stage manager, who has been sanitizing the microphones, tells the actors they can grab a few costume pieces before they launch into the live radio performance. Presumably, this is the first time they’ve heard about this. Then, when the show goes to air, the first thing we see is actor Hiro Kanagawa as Sam. Wearing a fedora and trench coat, he is essentially fully costumed. Standing in a solo spotlight, he’s delivering the opening monologue, but how are radio listeners hearing him? He’s downstage of the mics. At the end of Act 1, the stage manager announces there’ll be a 20-minute intermission. On live radio?

To be fair, Spencer’s loose approach allows the actors to have fun — embracing mic stands instead of one another in romantic scenes, for instance. And the presence of the foley artists reminds us that we’re always constructing realities. But why not find a way of having fun that makes cleaner sense?

Fortunately, the production also contains uncompromised successes. Kanagawa is perfection as Sam, bringing both style and emotional resonance to Shiomi’s tough-talkin’ dialogue, including Sam’s defense of his job: “You don’t have to smile for a living and that’s the way I like it.” Under Spencer’s direction, one of the chief pleasures of this show is its consistent rhythmic energy — and Kanagawa’s performance is the major driving force: although he is determinedly low-key, this Sam is always hunting.

In a generally strong cast, I also particularly appreciated Yukari Komatsu’s humble portrait of a café owner named Rosie and Agnes Tong’s feisty, emotionally present work as Nancy. Unfortunately, Craig Erickson overplays both of his law-enforcement characters, which leaves us less to discover.

Thematically, Yellow Fever is concerned with racial identity: questions about cultural and neighbourhood loyalty run through it. The script is also about the institutionalized racism that Sam uncovers — and that’s where things get a little odd for me. (Again, I’ll encourage readers to remember that I’m a white guy.) Yellow Fever was first produced in 1982 and, true to the stylized nature of the script, the bad guys, the racists, are presented almost as cartoon bogeymen. In 2022, those bogeymen are so obviously, unashamedly in positions of power, it feels to me like the stylishly entertaining film-noir script isn’t sturdy enough to contain them or seriously hold them to account.

There’s a lot to think about here. Maybe that’s why, although this show runs almost two hours, including that intermission, I was often quizzical, but never bored.

YELLOW FEVER By R.A. Shiomi. Directed by Donna Spencer. A Firehall Arts Centre production at the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, June 2.  Continues until June 12. Tickets

NEVER MISS A REVIEW: Sign up for FRESH SHEET, my weekly e-letter about the arts.

And, if you want to help to keep independent arts criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!