Written by Lisa Sanaye Dring and directed by Jessica Hanna, the world premiere of Hungry Ghost at the Skylight Theatre Company is easily one of the best Los Angeles plays of 2023 with some of the most innovative acting, stage, and lighting design I’ve seen this year.
It accomplishes so much within their intimate black box stage and just goes to show that with the right writing, directing, acting, and most importantly, imagination, some truly great theatre can be accomplished.
Let’s first talk about how good the ensemble cast is, starting with the main two actors Jenny Soo and Tasha Ames, who play Dean and Amanda respectively. Ames brings unbridled humor and heart to a rather complex role that can easily be written off as the “misunderstanding white significant other.” Though we as the audience see the viewpoint differences that will unfortunately clash hard with Soo’s Dean, Ames never forgets the humanity to make the character three dimensional as she certainly tries her hardest to make the relationship work despite their differences. While I personally found the character to be an emotionally manipulating gas-lighter, especially when it comes to denying any form of racial microaggressions happening to her partner, it is not done in any heavy handed way from the actor’s performance to the words written by the playwright.
The core of the play belongs to Jenny Soo and from the get go, Soo’s incredible ability to convey her emotions allows us as the audience to truly take the journey with her and viscerally connect with whatever her character is going through. She gets the brunt of the play’s heaviest moments but most importantly she balances it deftly with humor, wit, and charm. It is not an easy feat to do, and Soo knocks it out of the park.
But if there is an award for the most unhinged, chaotic, and awe-inspiring performance of this year, if not the past couple of years, it belongs to Ben Messmer as the Hermit hands-down. We as the audience are left to our own interpretations on what this character exactly is, but one thing for sure is that it is an absolute delight to see him on stage. What begins as something quite ominous (with some truly fantastic sound and lighting design which I’ll get into in a bit) transforms into pure chaos which culminates in a mind-blowing solo moment that left my jaw agape in how Messmer truly just lets himself go. It is a scene I will remember for quite some time that simply elevates this already fantastic play into something other-worldly.
With the pedigree of acting displayed here, major kudos must go to casting director Victoria Hoffman for playing a vital part in assembling the cast together.
What also contributed to the other-wordly experience is the astounding work done with the superb collaboration of scenic designer Yuri Okahana-Benson, lighting designer Brandon Baruch, sound designer Joseph Slawinski, illusion designers Sean Cawelti & Morgan Rebane, video designer Nicholas Santiago, and costume designer Mylette Nora. What’s even more impressive and commendable is that all of this work was done in a small 99-seat theatre, which only proves that so much can be done with imagination leading the way.
But no matter how stellar the ensemble acting and tremendous the design elements may be, it is all for naught if the writing and directing doesn’t set the foundation. Lisa Sanaye Dring conveys so much in this play and is undeniably a terrific new voice in the playwrights world and it just so happens that she will have another world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse for Sumo that looks to be fantastic. If Hungry Ghost was this good, then it’s worth making a fair bet that Sumo is an experience worth checking out.
Hungry Ghost is a beast of a play that tackles so much with its topic of isolation, supernatural elements, racial identity and the microaggressions that come with it. And enveloped in all of these matters is the undeniable element of magical realism that is embedded throughout that can easily throw the audience off. In Hanna’s hands, she deftly weaves all the elements together that fully brings out the magical realism in an intimate black box space while trusting her actors to shine and balancing out all the design elements to bring the story alive without overwhelming it.
I absolutely adored Hungry Ghost and while I can see the magical realism elements being confusing for some audience members, it elevates the material that specifically deals with identity (particularly the Asian American identity) in such a way that doesn’t feel heavy handed nor simplifying to absolutes. If you come in with an open mind, you will be taken on an enthralling and captivating journey that will engage the mind and mystify it at the same time.
What: Hungry Ghost
Written by Lisa Sanaye Dring
Directed by Jessica Hanna
Produced by Gary Grossman for Skylight Theatre Company
Associate Producer: Tyree Marshall
Recommended for age 14 +
ASL Interpreted Performance on September 10
Tasha Ames (Amanda), Ben Messmer (Hermit), Jenny Soo (Dean)
Dean and Amanda are ready to start a family. Dean’s estranged mother has left her a secluded house in the woods where the couple have decided to settle. Their plans suddenly take a twisted turn when the new home is burglarized by a mysterious hermit — a Stevie Nicks worshiping, hot Cheetos eating trickster — who haunts the forest. Hungry Ghost is a chillingly humorous meditation on identity and isolation, seeing and being seen, and the insatiable hunger in us all to be truly free.
1816 1⁄2 North Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90027
Parking information: http://skylighttheatre.org/plan-your-visit/
Previews August 19, 20, 25
Opening: 8:30pm Saturday, August 26, 2023
Schedule: 8:30pm Saturdays, 3:00pm Sundays, 7:30pm Mondays
(No performance on Monday, August 28 and September 4)
Closing: October 1, 2023
Reservations: (213) 761-7061or online at SkylightTix.org
Previews $18 +
Opening night tickets on August 26: $45+
Regular: $20 – $38
Pay it forward: up to $76
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