Park Labrea News / Beverly Press
Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner
"(The Teahouse of the August Moon) delivers a delightful evening's entertainment and, as a whole, is thoroughly enjoyable and should bring a lot of joy of the season to anyone who loves fun and beauty."
Our world has speeded up so much during the past 50 years, with TV, space exploration, and the Internet (and many technological stops along the way) chasing away cultural differences and replacing them with a multicultural (some say non-cultural) literacy what is succored by the past, which it often erases in the process.
In a universal, one-world view that pretends indifference to differences, special nuances and cultural specificity have blobbed into a featureless political correctness that is washed free of color, custom and respect for national and regional history.
"Teahouse of the August Moon" was written in 1946, after The Bomb, but before political correctness was correct. As such, it's a bit of a theatrical relic, harking back to simpler and often crueler times when occupying armies practiced watered-down Colonialism on the "natives."
In this instance, the occupied country is Okinawa, and the occupying force is the American Army of occupation. Kaz Mata-Mura and Mike Rademaekers started with John Patrick's Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning play and adapted it for its rollicking humor, but tempered their adaptation with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility that bears in mind the radical changes in intra-cultural perception and sensitivity, but still pays respect to the playwright's vision.
Played as pure comedy without too many heavy cultural overtones, any offense that a contemporary audience might feel is offset by the stunning authenticity of dress, language and regional dialect, movement, decor, and music. To someone not attuned to the differences in specificity of these elements, the overall appeal is flavored with with attention to detail and the commitment of the director (Rademaekers), the producers, the technical staff and the actors to a very special enlightening experience.
To those who are aware of the cultural nuances, the stated objective - not to distract from an entertaining production - is beautifully realized.
The story revolves around two major characters - Captain Fisby (Paul Denniston, double cast with Evan Andes), the American officer who is sent to democratize the inhabitants of the tiny village of Tobiki, in the deep south of Okinawa, and Sakini (Keisuke Hoashi, double cast with Ian Shen), the wily interpreter who holds his whole small world in his hands.
Fisby, who's been liberated from every position he's ever held, has the unenviable task of making the village self-sufficient, building a Pentagon-shaped schoolhouse, and inaugurating a Ladies League. When the schoolhouse starts looking like a teahouse, the villagers start manufacturing Sweet Potato Brandy, and Fisby gets to open his Christmas present - a beautiful Geisha, Lotus Blossom (Mata-Mura) - which sets him on the road to 'going native,' Washington starts to wonder if things are out of control.
Hoashi, who is not only the narrator, the interpreter, the curtain-puller, the resident rascal and the fomenter of a lot of mayhem, but a very-much-in-control clown, gives a stellar performance, exuding heaps of mischievous charm and enormous stage presence.
Mata-Mura's geisha is a petite package of charm and grace, exotic, elegant and spectacular, especially in her traditional, authentic geisha dance performance. (Exceptional costuming by Hina Mamemura and perfectionist Japanese Dance Choreography by Madame Fujima Kansuma).
Denniston is lovably naive as the befuddled Fisby, though he is somewhat mannered and mugging until his big reconstruction comes about.
Paul Lirette (double cast with Josh T. Ryan) is stalwart as Captain McLean, the psychologist who is sent to set Fisby back on track, until he too starts to bathe in sweet potato nectar.
Tony Matthews is a nicely brusque Colonel Purdy, an uxorious company man who needs to make General to please his wife.
Kumie Shirasaki, Catherine Lee, Sara Colon, Vic Miyahira, Harry Du Young, Paul Huang, Zuke Oshiro, Jennifer Chu, Kayo and Howard Fong are delightful and a joy to watch as the happy villagers. Patrick Parins is nicely guileless as Sgt. Gregovich, Colon Purdy's Aide.
Rademakers has absorbed the oriental ambiance by osmosis and maintains the dialectical constraints of American military life and sun-soaked southern Okinawan easygoing ways with the same kind of grace that tempers the total production.
(Understanding the exigencies of opening night, with the paint still drying on the sets and a large cast of characters to accommodate on a small stage, he might consider mowing the play along a bit more smoothly by eliminating some of the platform moving, and possibly establishing a pulley system for the bamboo curtain - a terrific touch -, relieving Sakini of the worry that the curtain won't open. The building of the teahouse, consisting of the villagers carrying in flats and a couple of small pieces of furniture is a brilliant concept, and might be utilized for other scene changes.)
"Teahouse" delivers a delightful evening's entertainment and, as a whole, is thoroughly enjoyable and should bring a lot of joy of the season to anyone who loves fun and beauty and a glimpse (however sobering) into the way things were, at this delightful little theater in North Hollywood, just a hop, skip, and jump over the hill.