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Monday, June 3, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Uyehara Keeps `Hiro' Aloft Despite Show's Shortcomings

Seattle Times Theater Critic

-------------- THEATER REVIEW --------------

"Hiro" by Denise Uyehara. Directed by Valerie Curtis Newton. Thursdays-Sundays at the Northwest Asian American Theatre through June 23. 340-1049.

Modern Asian-American theater has long flirted with the supernatural. But that mystical strain is increasingly prominent in recent works by younger playwrights of Asian origin.

In a marked departure from the earlier stories of immigration, assimilation and racism, these under-30 artists often explore subjective personal and metaphysical realms, where just about anything - even human flight - can happen.

In Los Angeles, playwright Denise Uyehara's "Hiro," the titular character actually does fly like a bird.

The drama, honored with a major "AT&T On Stage" grant in 1994, begins when fly-girl Hiro (Shirley Oliver) suddenly swoops down on her troubled family for a disquieting visit, after 15 years away.

This aeronautic sojourner in royal blue spandex is not quite visible to everyone, however. Hiro's bitter, alcoholic sister Shell (Mika Burns) and spaced-out mother Queen T (Kathy Hsieh) see her vividly. But Shell's husband Ace (Carlton Pleasant) only senses Hiro. That's enough to get him reminiscing about their old mutual attraction.

Staged with visual acuity by Valerie Curtis-Newton, on an intriguing set by Dawn Lanphier Simon, "Hiro" spends no time explaining why this family acts so oddly and speaks so obliquely.

It assumes suspension of disbelief and acceptance of Hero's periodic flights , her mother's psychic powers and some unresolved mysteries about who is dead, who is alive and what happened to the family patriarch.

The ambiguities in "Hiro" can be irritatingly vague, the relationships scantily developed and the story line so wispy it wafts. Even so, Uyehara (who performed her solo piece, "Headless Turtleneck Relatives" at NWAAT last year) gives her study of family dysfunction an unusually dreamy and fierce texture, and the distinctive voice of a tone poem.

Hiro's flying is an obvious metaphor for female escape, strength and freedom, but not belabored as such. And the sibling rivalries play out in off-kilter ways, with bare-knuckle combat and barbed exchanges.

Dragging around in an old house dress and swigging whisky from a jar, Burns does a fine job conveying Shell's edgy hurt and festering rage. Though too young to be her 50-year old mother, Hsieh captures the Blanche du Bois-like fragility and sporadic steeliness the role calls for.

Oliver has more trouble making Hiro much more than a gung-ho flying jock. And though an engaging presence, Pleasant never fills in Ace's sketchy outline.

Though not fully fleshed out, "Hiro" holds interest and makes you curious how Uyehara's talent will mature. Curtis-Newton's production also can be admired for Simon's semi-abstract seaside set, with its taut wall of strings and boardwalk, Craig B. Wollam's atmospheric lighting and a sound design (by Mische Eddins) that gives subtle suggestions of gulls, waves and foghorns.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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