Review: ‘Tiger Style!’ at Olney Theatre Center

Buy your ticket today for a rich palette of cultural and political satire. Olney Theatre Center’s Tiger Style! is the best stage comedy I’ve seen in 2019.

Regina Aquino and Sean Sekino in ‘Tiger Style!’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Directed by Natsu Onoda Power, a major theme in this satirical show is how parenting affects children. Playwright Mike Lew wrote Tiger Style! as a partial response to the book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” by law professor Amy Chua. Chua’s book chronicles the strict upbringing – endless hours of academic rigor and piano playing – she inflicted upon her daughters Sophia and Lulu.

It is refreshing that Tiger Style! does not paint minorities as objectified victims, (what Japanese-American culture critic Rob Buscher has called ‘poverty-porn’ stories). Instead, as Olney Theatre Center’s Artistic Director Jason Loewith points out in the program, the stories in Tiger Style! “are familiar to anyone in the audience: children rebelling against (and returning to) their parents, sibling rivalry, the search for self and inner worth.”

Jennifer Chen is a doctor, who graduated from Harvard in three years, who lives with her brother Albert, an unassertive computer programmer with an annoying boss, Russ the Bus. Jennifer has a slacker boyfriend, Reggie, who installs car radios and plays in a rock band. We meet several other characters as the story progresses: Jennifer and Albert’s parents, a conniving Chinese general, and a rude customs agent among others.

Jennifer and Albert decide to push against Chinese stereotypes (e.g. “Chinese people don’t brag.”) and go “full Western” i.e. become assertive Chinese Americans. After this idea crashes in spectacular fashion, Albert and Jennifer decide to go on an “Asian Freedom Tour” and go “full Eastern” in China. Tiger Style! poses several questions toward the end of the first act: Will race not be a factor in China? Will they find the Chinese way of life superior to the American way of life?

Regina Aquino as Jennifer and Sean Sekino as Albert are best in scenes in which they complain that their parents stifled them. Kurt Kwan, as Dad, performs a powerful monologue about the adversity parents endure for their children. (“You two have every advantage we could provide!”) Eileen Rivera, as Mom, is disparaging in her tone toward children she saw as spoiled.

Regina Aquino and Sean Sekino in ‘Tiger Style!’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Sekino, in his debut at Olney, effectively steers his character Albert from milquetoast to social justice rabble-rouser. Aquino, also in her Olney debut, effects great comedic timing throughout. Kwan, who plays a total of four roles, is menacing as Chinese general Tzi Chuan. Rivera, who also plays several roles, has a funny scene in which she plays Jennifer’s therapist. Michael Glenn’s strongest role is as Russ the Bus – he amps up that character’s stupidity to a high level. Glenn, who has appeared in Olney’s Marjorie Prime, makes Reggie the picture of sloth and indifference.

The Miami Vice color-schemed set, in a quasi theater-in-the-round configuration, is full of surprises, including lights embedded in the translucent stage floor; Scenic Designer Tony Cisek earns his paycheck. Sound Designer Roc Lee includes musical transitions that at times give the show a sitcom feel. Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny’s best work is a red and gold-embroidered tunic and a cape worn by Kwan.

Director Power and Olney Theatre Center have put on a fitting show to end their 81st season.

Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

Tiger Style! plays through August 18, 2019, at the Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney MD. For tickets, call 301-924-3400 or go online.