Theater Review: ZAC EFRON (Token Theatre at A Red Orchid)

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by Emma S. Rund on July 7, 2024

in Theater-Chicago


Token Theatre’s world premiere production of Zac Efron by David Rhee — co-written by Wai Yim and directed by Alan Muraoka — is not about Zac Efron at all, beyond recognizing that he’s a cookie-cutter hot white man. The play spotlights a gay Asian-American love story and the pair’s rise to internet fame amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Though this 90-minute comedy has a few bumps and hiccups, it is the start of something magnificent.

Gordon Chow, Wai Yim

Token Theatre, founded in 2017 by Rhee and Erik Kaiko, has a goal to “humanize Asian Americans and foster an environment that recognizes us as Americans.” Their first full production has certainly made them a company to watch out for.

Gordon Chow, Hansel Tan

A NYC apartment filled with drag costumes, fairy lights, and tarot sets the stage for David, played by Hansel Tan, and Wai, played by Wai Yim, to take their friendship on an exuberantly silly ride to YouTube stardom and a quest to find love. Wai, a Chinese-American actor waiting for his big break on a New York City stage, has turned to YouTube for a chance at success with a livestreaming channel called “HornyScopes.” His long-time best friend, David, a Korean-American teacher, is on a mission to find his Little House on the Prairie romance with his very own Zac Efron (again, a hot white man). When the two get into an argument on Wai’s livestream, the channel begins to take off, and Wai convinces David to embark on this internet fame journey as a team. The ensuing montage of karaoke, costume changes, and drag performances radiates joy. It would be challenging to watch that section and not have a good time.

Hansel Tan

But there’s more to this play than over-the-top comedy. Things take a serious turn, and the play gets wonderfully human. Heart strings are pulled when David and Wai show their wounds and face some challenging truths about their own self-worth and the sometimes-cruel world they live in. On occasion, people look for love in the wrong places because they’re looking for the kind of love they think they deserve.

Cheryl Hamada, Hansel Tan
Gordon Chow, Hansel Tan

Gordon Chow, who plays a myriad of characters including David’s dad, Zac Efron, a doctor, and the Queen of Swords (a tarot card come to life), gives a remarkable dimension to each role. As David’s dad, he balances stubborn comedy with a quiet love for his son, perfectly exemplifying this play’s dance between laughter and deep human emotions.

Wai Yim

Hansel Tan takes a melodramatic approach to his character, David, which works well early on when he was playing up the comedy, but loses its effectiveness when emotions began to run high. I fear Tan was having an off night when I saw the show, with a few flubbed lines, and some apparent nerves — I could see him thinking about his acting. I’d like to give Tan the benefit of the doubt and recognize it’s very challenging to act in such an intimate space. I got the impression I would have enjoyed his performance much more on a larger stage. I look forward to seeing Tan grow, perhaps taking a cue from this play to perform with more vulnerability and radical self-acceptance in the future.

Hansel Tan, Wai Yim

Tan’s scene partner and the play’s standout talent, Wai Yim, has those qualities in spades. In addition to playing his namesake character, Yim also co-wrote the script, designed costumes, hair, wigs, props, and the set. It’s clear Yim is a multi-talented artist, but his acting shines the brightest. Yim pulls back layer after layer to show us his full vulnerable self in a breathtakingly honest performance. I was captivated by every move he made and found myself welling up right along with him when tears quietly leaked from his eyes. I can’t wait to see where Yim goes next. Wherever it is, I’d like to be in the audience.

Wai Yim, Hansel Tan

Playwright David Rhee put pen to paper to bring us a story I haven’t seen anywhere else — not on stage, screen, or in a novel. Hopefully this play will be a trendsetter for Chicago theatre, and we will begin to see more stories filled with queer Asian joy, love, and self-acceptance. Admittedly, there are a few places in the script that need ironing out — moments that tried for a laugh that didn’t quite land and a few clunky Facetime calls — but the play has abundant heart and a driving rhythm all the way through. I eagerly await the next version of this play and the next one. I think it has a long life ahead of it, and I can’t wait to see how Zac Efron and Token Theatre continue to grow.

Wai Yim, Wai Ching Ho, Hansel Tan

photos by Daniel Eggert

Zac Efron
Token Theatre
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N Wells St
ends on July 21, 2024
for tickets ($20-$40), visit Token Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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