December 22, 2023 Coverage and Posts, CSA, Music, Theater

REVIEW: The Importance of One Log Bridge Outweighs the Patchwork of it’s Execution

REVIEW: The Importance of One Log Bridge Outweighs the Patchwork of it’s Execution

Photographs by Renee Rosensteel.

Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2023–24 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of One Log Bridge by Yan Pang, a collaborative response from Vanessa Reseland with guest panelists David Bernabo, Ariel Xiu, Amy Wang, and Luis Zul.

By Vanessa Reseland

One Log Bridge, the story of a young immigrant’s move from China to the US, came to life on stage at the New Hazlett Theater as part of its Community Supported Art series in December 2023. Writer and composer Yan Pang (she/they) created a nearly autobiographical piece of theater that was billed as an opera or a “play with operatic music,” but after witnessing the debut, it seems more accurate to describe the format of the show as that of a traditional American musical. There are, however, melodic treats that make this show special. The musical arrangements evoked genuine emotion when executed by Music Director A.J. DePretis on piano, PJ Roduta on drums/percussion, and Jin Pang, real-life Yan’s father, playing the erhu. The erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument with two strings, helped tell the story of protagonist Yan (yes, named after the playwright) and her move from China to Minneapolis in order to achieve her dream of earning a PhD in music composition, much like the real-life story of playwright, Yan Pang. Pang is a music professor at Point Park University. The cast of One Log Bridge was made up of current students.

The show could be construed as entirely autobiographical as there are commonalities in names, locations, and much of the plot, but this is the theater, and there are moments of fabrication or exaggeration utilized for the sake of storytelling. Playful and astute director Richard Keitel created a rich atmosphere despite the fast-paced storytelling.

A simple but smartly designed set by Emmaline Naud, executed with help from associate Stella Frazier, used minimal pieces to create spaces in China and the US simultaneously with the help of nuanced lighting by Rianne Lindsey.

We started in China, seeing Yan, exuberantly played by Amanda Sun, and her Mother, Min, played with clarity and precision by Mimi Jong. The relationship between Yan and her mother is initially superficial as the early dialogue serves as an obvious exposition and a setup for the plot. Eventually, the two characters evolve as we discover the depth of their bond during their separation. In an ingenious musical concept, most of their phone calls consist of Yan’s speaking voice on the American end of the line and, on the Chinese end, a response from a humorous, Charlie Brown’s teacher-esque erhu, played by Mimi Jong, to mimic her tone of speech. The connection and intimacy between the two shines during the songs they share. Yan repeatedly goes back to her mother for support. In a gorgeous and moving song between the two of them, their voices counter each other, and we feel the pull between Yan’s new Western world and her family roots still in China. The beautiful melodies and touching performances express their mutual yearning for both Yan’s comfort and each other. Min is a concerned mother who wants to keep her daughter from harm, but she knows her “little swallow bird” is made to make music. At times of crisis, the erhu is removed from their phone calls, and Min speaks Mandarin to Yan with beautifully-styled translations above the stage. Translation from Mandarin to English is lofty and open to wide interpretation that can lose its richness of meaning, but the English translations made in the songs and dialogue of One Log Bridge were full of impressive and beautiful poetic imagery. Though sometimes general and still open to interpretation, the inclusion of these Chinese songs in their native tongue is incredibly effective to the story and to the humans experiencing the production.

The entire plot of One Log Bridge stems from Yan’s passion for composition and her desire to attain a PhD in the US, but when we experience her colleagues in higher education, they are ripe with ignorance and immaturity. The bullying, social hierarchy, and racist “jokes” seem to be prioritized above class, studying, or anything resembling effort to attain a hard-earned PhD. Life at the University of Minnesota seemed to more closely resemble that of Saved By the Bell or Glee than one would expect in higher education. The introduction to her fellow students comes with a campy and surprising musical number involving breakdancing solos and team choreography, presumably only to showcase that we are not in China anymore, but they quickly turn from a dance troupe into a toxic mess of personalities. The BIPOC identifying people find solace in each other, but there is no protection from J-sun. Played by Braden Stroppel with toxic masculinity straight out of Rick & Morty, J-sun’s verbal harassment spews in all directions, but the somehow popular jock-type choreographer saves most of his quips for Yan. While one cannot always predict what will inspire the heart, it is hard to reconcile the quick turn-around from J-sun’s juvenile nastiness to the admission of his love for her and her eagerness to trust and lean on him. Their romance is sparked by his reluctant acceptance of Yan and her culture in a hilarious and startling stylistic departure, an endearing song and dance tribute to a Chinese snack–chicken feet.

The cartoonish interactions with Yan’s immature peers suddenly come up against some painful, hard-hitting sections about COVID, racism, and immigration woes. The playwright seems to want to hold a mirror up to the complexities and wide range of problems immigrants face in this country, and that goal is partially accomplished. However, each scene is a suggestion of a particular issue or challenge that is not fully realized. It takes us through the broad strokes of circumstances, then walks us into the next moment without deep exploration of the issue. They are suggestions of experiences that the audience would need to fill in themselves based on personal experience or educated assumptions. The character of Yan has potential to be fully fleshed out, but she is kept just out of our reach of total understanding. She comes up against the pressure to be a “model minority” without resolution, she encounters microaggressions and racist comments at school that go undealt with, she faces intense xenophobia and prejudice by an immigration officer in a sudden and surreal desertion of tone involving heavy lighting cues and Yan’s rousing, imaginary confrontation. All of these moments exist more as vignettes than as plot progression and could be drawn out further to give the story and characters their due.

Such a poignant and important tale deserves to take its time, but at 90 minutes in length, One Log Bridge felt rushed. Some members of the panel thought that the piece could have been told more fully with deeper character development if the length was extended and an intermission was added to break things up.

A risky and unexpected turn at the end of the show brought us to present day, present hour, present moment. Here, we got meta. Some years down the line, Yan is a professor at Point Park University. After running into her former professor, she is encouraged to apply for the New Hazlett CSA series (Hello!). We see real-life Yan step out to direct the cast of One Log Bridge as we know them from the show we have just been watching. But, the actor (Amanda) who was playing Yan is now playing Amanda preparing to play Yan. And the real Yan is playing Yan preparing to put up the show at the New Hazlett Theater, which is currently being put up at the New Hazlett Theater. The play turned into a play-within-a-play that turned into a rehearsal of the final number, which actually was the final number. It was a crafty moment for those in the know, and it probably landed better for Yan’s close-knit Point Park fan base and those privy to Yan’s personal story. If you didn’t know much about Yan, it was a strange moment and impossible to follow, leaving many of our panelists with the feeling of being outside of an in-joke.

Overall, One Log Bridge was full of humor and risk-taking and beautiful music. The format and style is in prime position to be finessed and clarified, the characters and circumstances can be developed more deeply, and the ending can be converted to suit the next production or nailed down to exist in any context. The show, with so much potential for greatness, is already achieving something monumental. The real benefit of producing this work, in its current stage, was its impact on the community. One Log Bridge was able to hold space for its cast members of the Asiatic diaspora and give them a context where they felt seen and affirmed. Many in the audience and on our panel felt the same way. That is a success all on its own.

Review Panel:

Vanessa Reseland (they/them) is an actor/singer/songwriter, who has performed all over the US and in the UK. After growing up in the North Hills, Vanessa spent 12 years in New York City and three years in Los Angeles, working in musical theatre, film, and television. They played the Witch in Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods in London and on the US National Tour, winning the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Visiting Production and the LA Critic’s Circle Award for Best Ensemble Cast. Vanessa is a founding member of MOD Theatre Company in NYC/LA and co-created and co-directed the webseries, Remarkable Women, with Alexandra Lenihan. They have performed their original music/artpop project, WIFEY, since 2012 Vanessa is currently very happy to be back in Pittsburgh and diving into the arts scene.

Ariel Xiu is an artist whose works are meditations and performances on the multiplicity of human experience, the non-locatable, the interconnectivity of all things and their relationships — processed through the lens of an Asiatic lineage. She has performed in theatres including The New Hazlett and Kelly Strayhorn’s Alloy Studios, DIY house venues, and art galleries (Living Gallery and Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC, SPACE in Pittsburgh). She is a former resident at The Space Upstairs and scholar of the annual Pulse Laser Workshop hosted by the HoloCenter at Ohio State University.

Amy Wang

Luis Zul

David Bernabo is an oral historian, musician, artist, and independent filmmaker. His film work has documented western Pennsylvania food systems, climate change, the studio practices of composers and artists, and the histories of iconic arts institutions like the Mattress Factory. He is most noted for Moundsville, a documentary co-directed with former Wall Street Journal writer John W. Miller, which screened on PBS for three years, and the biographical documentary Just For The Record about avant-garde composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny.


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