April 10, 2024

NY Filmmaker Meets Star from Hong Kong in “Flight of a Legless Bird”: Multitalented PU Senior Ethan Luk Presents Beautiful Drama at McCarter

“FLIGHT OF A LEGLESS BIRD”: Performances are underway for “Flight of a Legless Bird.” Written by Ethan Luk, and directed by Luk in collaboration with retired Program in Theater faculty member R.N. Sandberg, the play runs through April 13 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Above, from left: Disparate circumstances cause Robin (Wasif Sami) and Leslie (Luk) to meet, after which a unique, unexpected bond is formed. (Photo by James DeSalvo)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In the film Days of Being Wild (1990), actor Leslie Cheung delivers this line: “I’ve heard that there’s a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life … that’s when it dies.”

Flight of a Legless Bird is an exquisite, poignant play that portrays two queer artists who metaphorically, as Cheung’s dialogue says, “fly and fly.” Both are fleeing from circumstances in which they feel trapped. Certain events cause their “flight” paths to intersect, and they have a chance encounter that affects them in unexpected ways.

The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater and Music Theater at Princeton University is presenting Flight of a Legless Bird at McCarter. The play is written by senior Ethan Luk, who also is in the cast, and directed by Luk in collaboration with playwright and retired Lecturer in Theater R.N. Sandberg.

This is the first full production of Flight of a Legless Bird, which has been developed in part in collaboration with New York Theater Workshop’s Mind the Gap Program. A press release notes that the play “represents Luk’s work in pursuit of a certificate in the Program in Theater and Music Theater and is his senior thesis in the Department of Comparative Literature.”

This layered, contemplative work examines many subjects and themes, particularly the tension between a thirst for freedom (particularly from familial and societal control), and a need for attachment to other people; artistic passion versus a desire to have a life beyond one’s work; the effect of world events (and ills such as homophobia) on individual lives; and the need to savor beautiful moments of a fragile and impermanent life.

Luk’s deft script is brought to life in a production that maintains outstanding professional quality throughout the show, both in the acting (by student performers); and in design (by a mixture of professionals and students).

The play is presented in Cantonese and Mandarin as well as English, with translations of the non-English dialogue projected via supertitles. Presenting the dialogue in multiple languages is effective, not just in presenting the characters with authenticity, but in underlining the point that the two protagonists are (literally) from opposite sides of the world. Hearing the Cantonese and Mandarin also gives Leslie’s (and other characters’) lines heightened dramatic power.

Luk’s story follows Robin (portrayed by Wasif Sami), a filmmaker living in New York’s West Village, who faces a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS; and Leslie (played by Luk), a movie actor and Cantopop singer in Hong Kong, who is ambivalent about the effect of his celebrity status on his personal life.

There are close parallels in the lives of the two protagonists. Both have tense relationships with their parents. Robin’s mother Dinah (Sabina Jafri) is frustrated by an increasing lack of communication with her son, and worries about his health and safety. Jafri’s perturbed line delivery captures Dinah’s steadily increasing desperation to rebuild a rapidly vanishing contact with Robin, which is illustrated by placing the two characters at opposite ends of the stage.

Leslie is estranged from his flawed father, the tailor Wut-Hoi (Abby Lu), who voices disapproval of much about his son’s personal and professional life. (Lu’s portrayal of Wut-Hoi is strongest in the second act, as the character starts to reevaluate some of the choices he has made.)

The two protagonists have similarly challenging relationships with lovers and friends. Leslie has a deep but complicated friendship with his costar Anita (played by Tiffanie Cheng, whose stage presence, slightly appraising gaze, and considered line delivery aptly portrays a character who knows the world may be watching and listening to her at any moment).

Robin, meanwhile, has a tense conversation with an ex-lover, David. Xander Constantine, who plays David, also is memorable as Chris, a character who, in the second act, aggressively tries to hook up with Leslie at a gay bar.

In the play’s core scene, Leslie and Robin—through different circumstances — end up sharing a hospital room in India. Separated by a barrier and therefore unseen by each other, the two have anonymity that frees them to open up to one another. An unexpected, unique bond forms between them. It is a beautiful scene, and the actors have the chemistry to make it the centerpiece it needs to be. (It is a bit surprising how little the two subsequently interact with each other, but they frequently are on stage together via split scenes.)

Andrew Mi ably performs a dual role as Theo, an artist who encounters Robin and gives him one of his creations with an unusual stipulation; and as Leslie’s partner, Daffy. John Venegas Juarez is exuberant as Kenny, a friend of Robin’s who has some eccentric funeral requests.

Certain characters are inspired by real people. Leslie is based on Leslie Cheung (1956-2003), the flamboyant actor and pop star from Hong Kong who is world renowned for films such as Farewell My Concubine and Happy Together. A 2022 GQ article quotes trans Filipina filmmaker Isabel Sandoval on the subject of Cheung’s androgyny: “Leslie naturally possessed both feminine and masculine [qualities] … I  think he’s the closest we’ve come to a modern-day Garbo in his sexual ambiguity.” Tragically, Cheung — who suffered from clinical depression — committed suicide at age 46.

Wut-Hoi is patterned after (and named after) Cheung’s father; Anita is based on actress and Cantopop singer Anita Mui (1963-2003); and Daffy is named after Cheung’s partner, Daffy Tong.

Robin and most of the characters in his orbit are fictional. Luk explains via an email that they are based on stories by Encke King, Luk’s writing partner from the Mind the Gap program. Theo is inspired by painter Sargy Mann (1937-2015).

What makes Luk stand out as both an actor and a director is a palpable determination to make the most of every scene. Almost every beat, especially when Luk performs, is filled with layers of subtext and emotion.

This is especially notable in two scenes. One is a scene in which Leslie and Robin dance. (In February, Luk’s skill as a choreographer was on display in a segment from Timeplapse, an evening of dance works presented by the Lewis Center.) Another occurs when Leslie is visibly battling depression; the body language is subtle, but we see the emotional weight that he is carrying.

In staging the show, Luk and Sandberg move us steadily from scene to scene but allow — even compel — us to savor crucial moments. The production feels cinematic in moving us through the many locations (including NYC, Colorado, Hong Kong, and India) and time periods (spanning the late 1980s to the early 2000s) in which the play is set, while delivering the intimacy and flexibility that live theater offers.

This is partly to the credit of Projection Designer Danny Landez. Photos and video footage aid in establishing time and place. There also is a poignant juxtaposition during the scene (noted above) in which Leslie and Robin dance, while footage of the real Leslie Cheung plays behind them. An eclectic selection of music broadcast by Sound Designer Nathan Leigh also adds to the cinematic feel, providing brisk, sweeping continuity.

Wesley Cornwell’s sets, Kerstin Fagerstrom’s lighting, and the costumes by Mel Ng all aid Luk and Sandberg in creating some ravishing, powerful stage pictures. Of Ng’s creations, a glittery white outfit worn by Leslie in the second act is particularly memorable.

Leslie muses, “So many people have taught us how to perfect our onstage selves, but no one has ever taught us how to be our offstage selves.” Flight of a Legless Bird has much to say about artists’ identities (and many other subjects), and says it poetically, with outstanding artistry. Ethan Luk already has accomplished much — his work has been recognized by 92Y and the Kennedy Center, among others — and watching this play makes one excited to watch Luk’s career develop from here.

Presented by the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Programs in Theater and Music Theater at Princeton University, “Flight of a Legless Bird” will play in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place in Princeton, through April 13. Content Advisory: The Lewis Center cautions that the “production contains mentions and discussions of homophobia; mentions and discussions of suicide; depictions of mental illness (including depression); and depictions of physical violence and intimacy.” For tickets or additional information, visit arts.princeton.edu.