A brave high school student learns life lessons from one of history’s most famous conquerors in “The Great Khan” at San Francisco Playhouse, through November 13.
Leon Jones stars as Jayden, a student whose bravery in defending a classmate from a gang attack has caused his mother to move them to a new home and enroll him in a new school to save him from harassment and possible retaliation. Laudable precautions on her part don’t prevent nightly visits from “Ant,” the girl he saved, who climbs through his bedroom window each night to give him trouble about his gallant deed. Ant (Jamella Cross) seems genuinely confused as to whether she should be thankful or resentful, as if the rescue somehow demeaned her independence. Jayden, in turn, is genuinely confused about what she’s doing in his room.
Two people thrown together by accident: it’s a potent setup for Michael Gene Sullivan’s ambitious and mostly successful meditation on teenage identity. Jayden’s a smart kid but is a worry for his hard-working single mom Crystal, played with some emotional detachment by Velina Brown. He has tough time connecting to school, especially a history class about the European Middle Ages, a field of study that he dismisses as being mostly about “dead white people.” Then his well-meaning but mostly clueless teacher Mr. Adams (Adam KuveNiemann) suggests that he research Genghis Khan, the legendary Mongolian conqueror whose empire encompassed most of Asia and a large part of Europe. Mr. Adams ups the ante by assigning Jayden a project partner, a nerdy girl named Gao-Ming (Kina Kantor) whose encyclopedic knowledge almost compensates for her social awkwardness.
…a good solid effort…
As Gao-Ming and Jayden study, he develops a near-obsession about the conqueror whose given name was Temujin (Brian Rivera). In a delightful bit of magical realism, Temujin begins to appear in his room, telling Jayden all about his life, from growing up and selecting a bride, to ultimately creating one of the biggest empires the world has ever known.
It’s a life-changing event for Jayden, and for the audience too—Rivera simply commands the stage as the legendary Khan, striding about in full Mongol warrior gear (costumes by Kathleen Qiu), singing lustily in Mongolian, and telling Jayden how he succeeded: by offering the conquered the opportunity to join his horde, and by instructing his soldiers to leave some of their enemies alive that “they might tell the tale”—an early exercise in what we now call “brand building.”
Relaxed and confident, Rivera clearly relishes the role. His performance is so mesmerizing that it has the unfortunate effect of putting his castmates in his shadow—probably not director Darryl V. Jones’ intention, but perhaps an inevitability when an actor is so perfectly suited for his part.
Sullivan’s script, while very good, could use a bit of editing. The early part suffers from too much exposition—Ant makes multiple appearances in Jayden’s room, in an effort to resolve her own feelings about the incident which launched the story, but she might be able to do so in three visits instead of five.
The scriptwriter’s “rule of three”—applied to setups for jokes as well as dramatic buildups—has proven accurate over centuries. And Gao-Ming seems under-utilized, mostly as comic relief. She, Crystal, and Mr. Adams have the shallowest character arcs in the play, while Jayden and Ant have the largest. Temujin doesn’t need a character arc—his presence alone is sufficient to drive the drama.
“The Great Khan” is the first big-cast post-pandemic production put on by SF Playhouse. It’s a good solid effort that showgoers will find both rewarding and provocative. A streaming version is available for those still reluctant to venture into indoor gatherings.
ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Production||The Great Kahn|
|Written by||Michael Gene Sullivan|
|Directed by||Darryl V. Jones|
|Producing Company||SF Playhouse|
|Production Dates||Thru November 13th|
|Production Address||SF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review Pick?||----|