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Red Thread:  Hollywood Reporter
Writer-director-set designer-makeup artist Stephen Legawiec and his Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble are dedicated theatrical visionaries as they continue to explore the cross-cultural boundaries and span generations in their continuing search to dramatize world culture, myth and ritual within the dramatic art form.

All this may sound a bit esoteric, but it's not. "Red Thread" is an inventive, lively, vigorous, visually stunning piece of work.

Credit Robert Velasquez for the lush costumes, Leif Gantvoort for the moody lighting and Susan Christiansen for the original music.

A world premiere, "Red Thread" is 90 minutes long (without an intermission) and tells the 1,200-year-old story of China's legendary Renzhe, a hired assassin. All starts in the Eastern Province court of governor Xu Song (Luis Zambrano), who, in order to create a political alliance with his rival governor of the Southeastern Province, Tian Chengsi (Dean Purvis), offers his daughter Xia (Michelle Tenazas) in marriage to Tian Yong (Sebastian Kunnappilly), the son of Tian Chengsi.

But the wily and nefarious Tian Chengsi has plans to take over the realm of Xu Song. And in order to protect himself, Xu Song sends his loyal servant and assassin Red Thread (Jenny Woo) to murder Tian Chengsi and thus avert a political disaster in China.

Unbeknownst to Xu Song, Red Thread has her own secret agenda: She has converted to Buddhism and wants to give up her life as an assassin. Only if she does, the fate of all of China will be threatened.

Legawiec spins a tale that is full of onstage awe and wonder, including lots of deft swordplay, martial arts daring, a Buddhist goddess (Yelena Strelkoff), a silk dancer (Elena Goss) and even a magician (Hamzah Kasom).

The ensemble is first-rate. Add strong support from Ogie Zulueta (as Ji Gong, the court minister to Xu Song), Garon Michaels (as Chang, the warrior servant to Tian Chengsi), Dian Kobayashi (as the old woman/poet), Emily Liu (as the young Hongxian) and Angie Lieuw (as the new Renzhe).

Red Thread: Random Sightings - Backstage West

A Red Thread Runs Through It

Theatre exists in such an eternally precarious state of valetudinarianism that observers keep predicting its imminent demise. Memorably someone (maybe George Jean Nathan, who'll know the difference?) long ago dubbed theatre "the fabulous invalid." Theatre was always dying, never dead. Someone else wrote a play based on that premise, with that title—The Fabulous Invalid. I called on my colleague, somewhat younger contemporary, and archival authority T.H. McCulloh for the playwright's name. He provided interesting information: The play debuted on Broadway in 1938, its prestigious cast including Doris Dowling, Richard Gordon, and Stephen Courtleigh. McCulloh couldn't remember who wrote it, and his reference book ignored the playwright. Bartlett's was no help; it ignored the fabulous invalid and forgotten author altogether. So much for playwrights! So much for fleeting fame!

But what a year it was on Broadway. Making their Broadway debuts in 1938 were Our Town, Golden Boy, Orson Welles' Julius Caesar, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, The Shoemaker's Holiday, Outward Bound, Somerset Maugham's The Circle, The Merchant of Yonkers, Babes in Arms. I go through my file of L.A. theatre reviews back to 1980, and I find years there that also are magnificent, and thrilling to remember.

All this is introduction to my unbounded enthusiasm for the creativity, originality, dedication, and (I dare say) genius of a too-little-known actor/writer/director/scholar who seemingly with little concern for acclaim or reward creates thrilling theatre just for the satisfaction of doing it and who convinces us there's life in the fabulous old invalid theatre yet. He is Stephen Legawiec, founder and head of Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble. His current production, Red Thread, plays at Gascon Theatre Center, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City, through June 16. It is a Critic's Pick in Back Stage West, Pick of the Week in L.A. Weekly, and Critics Choice in the L.A. Times. Daringly different, original, purely and artfully conceived, stunningly beautiful, exciting, it could leave you speechless.

Legawiec conceived, researched, wrote, and directed Red Thread, auteur style. He told me, "We've been practicing martial arts for six months. [Red Thread is] based on a 1,200-year-old Chinese story from the Tang Dynasty, an adventure story with a secret-identity theme and lots of martial arts. As Hong Xian Steals the Gold it is used frequently in Chinese opera. Last September I went to China and visited the Peking Opera. I consulted with Leonard Pronko, a well-known expert on Chinese and Japanese drama, who teaches at Pomona College. There's a lot of similarity to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's a theme that occurs often in Chinese opera. But Red Thread has a unique energy; and there's singing in it. It's important that our plays are accessible to our audiences."

Red Thread is breathtakingly beautiful to look at. The "silk dance" performed by Elena Goss is amazing. As its heroine, Jenny Woo's quiet, expert skill in martial and thespian arts wins admiration for a tour-de-force performance. Michelle Tenazas imbues her petulant princess with humor and sings with a voice of shimmering beauty. Ogie Zulueta is delightfully comic. Yelena Strelkoff's Guan Yin, goddess of mercy, appears on a lotus blossom in the mouth of a dragon. It's spellbinding. Dany Margolies' review (Back Stage West, 5/16/02) praised the "majestic production" for its blend of fairytale, musical theatre, and martial arts. The L.A. Times' Don Shirley called it "enchanting." The Weekly's Neal Weaver termed its martial arts "electrifying."

Legawiec (you'd never guess how to pronounce his name—Le-GAHV-yetz—has to be Polish, spelled like that, pronounced like that) is the son of noted composer/violinist Walter Legawiec. Stephen was inspired by world myths and legends to found Ziggurat Theatre "to celebrate our collective past [through theatre that] explores world culture and ritual…." His Ziggurat is assurance that that fabulous invalid theatre is thrillingly alive.


Red Thread: Backstage West

Out of the brightly hued vision of writer/director Stephen Legawiec comes this majestic production. Combining fairy tales, musical theatre, and martial arts to eclectic effect--well, Peking Opera if we must--the production somehow manages to also include intelligent and effective acting. An older woman (Dian Kobayashi in a melodious rendering) narrates the Tang Dynasty tale of an assassin--Red Thread (we won't spoil the lovely surprise, which comes early enough, anyway)--who protects a governor (crisply portrayed by Luis Zambrano) and his family from invasion under the orders of the neighboring province's governor (Dean Purvis in menacing mode) and his henchman (a sturdy Garon Michael). The governors' children marry: the bookworm prince (a subtly arcing Sebastian Kunnappilly) to the annoyingly bratty princess (Michelle Tenazas, who likewise comfortably makes her role mature).

On Legawiec's understated set, battles are fought, visions manifested, gardens strolled, and wedding entertainments presented. The pacing of the dialogue is un-American, however, unfolding more lyrically than for the convenience of our busy evening. The otherworldly lighting, by Leif Gantvoort, shimmers over the silks and leathers, brocades and quilts of costumer Robert Velasquez. Credited to fight directors Tim Storms, Matt Emery, and Eric Chen, the combat includes impeccably rendered hand-to-hand throws and break falls, sticks, and sword work. None of this could have been learned just for this production: The attacks, defenses, and falls seem ingrained in these actors. As if this were not enough, wedding entertainers include a silk dancer grappling high above the stage (Elena Goss), a magician (Hamzah Kasom), and a Chinese folk dancer (Angie Lieuw). With Susan Christiansen's original music, the multi-threat cast also sings: Noteworthy here are the silver-voiced Tenazas and the bold-voiced Purvis.

Other characters we meet on this silk road include a ferocious martial arts master (Constance Hsu), an imposing goddess (Yelena Strelkoff), and a struggling young warrior (Emily Liu). Providing ample comic relief, playing the court minister as a mouse-like clown, Ogie Zulueta displays delicious timing, occasionally toying with the audience. But the show belongs to Jenny Woo, maid to the governor and princess, whose talents cannot be contained by the small stage. Topping her particularly smooth martial arts technique and tumbling skills, her characterization balances the highly stylized work of the production with a richly rendered inner life. Hers is a character we believe in, admire, thrill for, and remember.


Red Thread: LA Weekly

By day, Hongxian (Jenny Woo) is the lowly maidservant of Governor Xu Song (Luis Zambrano). By night, she is the fierce, masked, scarlet-clad warrior known as Red Thread, sworn to protect her master. But Hongxian is faced with a moral dilemma. Just as she begins a reluctant conversion from the fierce warrior code to the peaceable Dharma way, her master arranges an alliance with treacherous rival governor Tian Chengsi (Dean Purvis), who’s secretly plotting war. How can Hongxian reconcile her new beliefs with the bloody necessities required to save China? Writer-director Stephen Legawiec’s exotic piece is part legend, part folktale and part martial-arts epic. There’s an ancient poet with a secret (Dian Kobayashi), a hilarious low-comedy courtier (Ogie Zulueta), a pair of combative young lovers (Michelle Tenazas and Sebastian Kunnappilly), a magic act and a host of spectacular athletic feats. The electrifying martial-arts sequences, superbly choreographed by Tim Storms, Matt Emery and Eric Chen, are more exciting than their movie counterparts because they’re performed live, without camera tricks or retakes. Stylized makeup and the gorgeous brocades of Robert Velazquez’s costumes dazzle the eye, as Susan Christiansen’s Chinese-flavored music beguiles the ear. Ziggurat Theater Ensemble, Gascon Theater Center, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 16. (310) 842-5737.\


Red Thread: Los Angeles Times

An Enchanting 'Red Thread' by Ziggurat
The graceful and lean stage presentation is reminiscent of the stylized film 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

If "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" brought the martial arts genre to the attention of Western moviegoers who had hardly noticed it, the enchanting "Red Thread" could do the same for Los Angeles theatergoers.

Writer, director and set designer Stephen Legawiec may not appreciate a comparison of his new play to a movie. He told a Times interviewer he believes that film lacks theater's spiritual dimension.

Still, with a female protagonist who's secretly a trained assassin but publicly plays a very different role within an ancient Chinese court--which is rife with intrigue--comparisons are unavoidable. And although the Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble production at Culver City's Gascon Center Theatre lacks the film's treetop fights, some of the other comparisons may well be in the play's favor.

Adapting an old Chinese tale, Legawiec gives his heroine a burning personal conflict. She has just become a follower of the imported new religion of Buddhism, and its nonviolent precepts don't jibe with her violent trade.

Her dilemma reaches a boiling point after her boss, who has just married off his daughter to another governor's son, learns of a treacherous plot by his daughter's new father-in-law.

Legawiec frames the story through a present-day narrator (Dian Kobayashi). She seldom strays from the side of the stage, but we eventually learn that she has a secret of her own.

The stage is generally bare but alive in color and shadow (lighting design by Leif Gantvoort). The back panels divide for presentations of flashback scenes from the life of the heroine. Richly brocaded costumes by Robert Velasquez and elaborate makeup enhance the sense of simple elegance.

Susan Christiansen's lush music combines Western and Chinese strains. Although largely prerecorded, with a sound that's a little too electronic on occasion, the score also includes one beautifully staged number that's sung live.
The martial arts scenes are performed with solemn gravity and pristine grace. The wedding ceremony includes an acrobatic silk dance by Elena Goss and a magic act.

Even outside the fight scenes, the cast moves with a stylized polish that indicates months of training. Jenny Woo is a wiz in both contrasting sides of the central character. Luis Zambrano and Dean Purvis are commanding as the rival governors. Michelle Tenazas and Sebastian Kunnappilly play the amusing young marrieds, while Ogie Zulueta is a marvel as a cocky, nimble servant.

Except for one awkward transition between scenes, the play moves quickly, with no intermission and very little fat. This is a remarkably accessible yarn from one of L.A. theater's most adventurous talents.


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