Reviewed by Dany Margolies
"This production is a gentle force that brings us together and holds us entranced for the space of two hours--perhaps even with a lingering sweet aftertaste."
Among tokens that represent peace and sharing, American chewing gum figured prominently in the international scene during and after World War II. So there's a rush of nostalgia to be felt in this production's opening and closing moments, during which Juicyfruit is introduced to the audience as a symbol of comfort and sharing.
It's not the only element that anchors John Patrick's play in the postwar years. Set in Okinawa during the American occupation, the script is dated--in the best meaning of the word, taking us back to a specific time and place. Here our military is hell-bent on bringing democracy to the Okinawans, so it sends Captain Fisby (Paul Denniston) to build a schoolhouse. But Fisby sees a different way of educating the natives: Encourage mass production and vitalize the town's economy. Together they build and operate a teahouse.
Sure, the play includes Asian stereotypes, among them a cheery interpreter, Sakini (Keisuke Hoashi), and the town livewire (Kayo). To be fair it also includes American stereotypes, among these an excitable colonel (Tony Matthews) and weak-minded military psychiatrist (Paul Lirette). Director Mike Rademaekers paints in updated acting styles--a valid choice that makes the play's most poignant moments unsentimental and vibrant but leaves its most comedic moments likewise grounded. The accents seem authentic rather than mocking (dialect coach Tsuyako Aoki), the body language genuine rather than broad. Would an apoplectic colonel exploding at his soldiers' transgressions, or a soldier in a manic attempt at a cover-up, better serve the script's 1950s sensibilities? Yes, but we are now a millennial audience, perhaps expecting a world-view sensibility.
We get ample satisfaction, whatever our expectations, in the exquisite, ethereal performance of Kaz Mata-Mura as the geisha given to Fisby. Geishas, as we learn, are not prostitutes; they take care of different needs, bringing a different sense of comfort to those they serve. So does Mata-Mura, whether sorting out Fisby's office, bringing him hot tea, or performing a lighter-than-air traditional Japanese dance (choreography by Fujima Kansuma Kai). We might also expect smoother set changes, but the design (Michael Vaccaro and Mark Preston Miller) is so charming that once the warmly effective lights (John Grant) come back up, we are softened again.
Like the chewing gum Sakini offers the audience, this production is a gentle force that brings us together and holds us entranced for the space of two hours--perhaps even with a lingering sweet aftertaste. The cast includes alternates.