Review: TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Mike Lew's riotous and biting comedy runs through April 28th in Mountain View

By: Apr. 16, 2024
Review: TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
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Who am I? That’s probably the most fundamental question we can ask ourselves, and it’s exactly what’s at the center of Mike Lew’s uproarious and penetrating Tiger Style! in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s bracing production. Described as a satire of “tiger” parenting, the play is really much more than that. It’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also an exploration of what it means to be Chinese American vs. Chinese vs. American amid the gulf of misunderstanding between generations. Miraculousy, this ambitious play manages to do all that without preaching to the audience. Lew’s script is studded with “Did he really just say that?!” lines like “You’re about as Chinese as Mickey Rooney.” Under Jeffrey Lo’s deft direction, no matter how outlandish the situation, the humor lands without diminishing the characters’ humanity or crossing over into caricature.

Tiger Style! centers on a pair of overachieving, third-generation Chinese American siblings who find themselves increasingly disenchanted with the lives they’re leading as young adults in Irvine, California. Jennifer is an accomplished physician and concert pianist, but her permanently zoned-out boyfriend has dumped her for no apparent reason. Her brother, Albert, is a proficient cellist who works as a programmer for a medical software company where his efforts are under-appreciated and he suffers the constant annoyances of his clueless, tech-bro colleague. As the sibs commiserate over how much their lives suck, it occurs to them that the roots of their discontent stem from their upbringing.

Review: TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
L to R: Emily Kuroda, Will Dao, Francis Jue & Jenny Nguyen Nelson
in the family confrontation scene of Mike Lew's Tiger Style! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Dodging responsibility for their own unhappiness, they cook up a plan to confront their parents and hash out all that went wrong in their childhood. As Albert gleefully imagines, “I’m gonna yell at Mom like a white girl!” That conversation doesn’t turn out as hoped since their parents make some valid points in their own defense and have a tendency to obfuscate on the touchier issues. As opaque as their expressions of love might be, though, you can’t really fault them. Evermore frustrated, Jenny then seeks out a not-too-helpful therapist and Albert gets passed over for a promotion at work. Clearly, things are only getting worse for both of them. As a last-ditch effort to halt their downward trajectory they embark on an “Asian Freedom Tour” to China, hoping that by reconnecting with their heritage they’ll get themselves back on track.

Of course, their Chinese sojourn turns out to be a far cry from what they’d anticipated. They’re surprised to find themselves almost complete aliens in their supposed native culture, and things spiral out of control in increasingly outrageous ways. Gleeful shopping sprees and reveling in an unlimited supply of dumplings soon devolve into supposedly chance meetings with subtly menacing government functionaries followed by an unsettling visit with their hyper-vigilant cousin Chen. When Albert and Jennifer find themselves forced to perform a piano/cello sonata to curry favor with the authorities, things get even screwier and more dire. The play reaches its climax back in the U.S. where their identities as Chinese Americans may be even more tenuous.

Review: TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Albert (Will Dao) and Jennifer (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) are interrogated
by a customs official (Jeremy Kahn) in Tiger Style! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Lew wrote the play in 2016 and has lightly updated his text, resetting it in 2019. Sly references are made to the impending COVID pandemic and our current reality where democracy feels like it’s slipping through our fingers due to forces seemingly beyond our control. What’s most striking about Lew’s dialog, other than its fearlessness, is how the domestic scenes reflect the way I imagine so many families might actually talk when no one else is around to overhear. They don’t connect exactly, but there is love even if it’s expressed indirectly, and each generation feels like it has its own cross to bear.

The production has been beautifully designed by a team of artists working perfectly in synch with each other. Arnel Sancianco’s set is basically just an arched entrance of an Asian American supermarket – but it has a zillion tricks up its sleeve including an immense, shimmery Chinese flag that is later on juxtaposed by an equally imposing American flag, and Kurt Landisman’s masterful lighting really makes the images pop. Becky Bodurtha’s costumes are rife with telling details, such as the multitude of buttons pinned higgledy-piggledy to a man’s jacket in the opening scene that offer a wealth of information about this character from the get-go.

Review: TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Tzi Chuan (Francis Jue) accosts Albert (Will Dao) and Jennifer (Jenny Nguyen Nelson)
upon their arrival in China in Tiger Style! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Lo has guided his cast through all the escalating shenanigans with an expert hand. The characterizations are vivid and larger than life (this is satire, after all), but nothing is meanspirited, nor does anyone take the easy road by going all soft and sentimental in the end. All five actors, three of whom play multiple roles, shine across the board. Will Dao as Albert and Jenny Nguyen Nelson as Jennifer make a believable pair of bickering sibs with a complicated history and navigate the more petulant aspects of their characters with aplomb, never alienating the audience. Jeremy Kahn triples terrifically as the deadbeat boyfriend, the colleague-boss-bro and a curt customs official, particularly effective in the latter role with his “just doing my job here” affect.

The cherry on top is the pair of actors playing an assortment of authority figures who ultimately ground the show and make it such delicious fun. Emily Kuroda, well-known for her 7-season run as Mrs. Lim on TV’s Gilmore Girls, has a riot playing the inscrutable mom and pragmatic matchmaker, but she especially shines as the not-so-effective therapist and the doomed Cousin Chen. Francis Jue is every bit as dazzling in a quartet of roles including the dad and Tzi Chuan, an over-solicitous gentleman of a certain age. Jue seems to have distilled every random Chinese elder you’ve ever met into one character, and is one of those rare actors who can play sweet and benign while maintaining an edge of unpredictability. When Tzi Chuan reappears later on, Jue provides additional layers of complexity to his portrayal. Even as you’re entertained by his delightfully unsettling performance, he keeps surprising you.  

Review: TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Jennifer (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) seeks help from a therapist (Emily Kuroda)
in Tiger Style! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

And that’s really an apt description for the entire production. It’s fun and funny, more than a little mortifying, political without being pedantic and touching without being maudlin. It’s another high mark for TheatreWorks which has been on quite a roll this season. As regional theater companies across the country have been struggling to emerge from the pandemic and reconnect with their audiences, TheatreWorks is a shining example of one that’s operating on all cylinders.

(all photos by Reed Flores)


Tiger Style! runs through April 28, 2024 at Mountain View Center for the Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Running time is approximately two hours fifteen minutes, including one intermission. For tickets and more information, visit or call (877)-662-8978.


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