Reviewed by Shin Minowa (Aug.3, 2003)
Masterfully directed by Mike Rademaekers, this remounting of "The Teahouse of the August Moon" is worthy to see. Although excellently produced this past December and January, this time the folks at Fire rose Productions and the Secret Rose Theatre have outdone themselves. This "new and improved" staging of John Patrick's Pulitzer Prize winning play is truly awe-inspiring.
Taking place after the end of World War II, in Okinawa, "The Teahouse of the August Moon" follows the efforts of Army of Occupation officer Captain Fisby (Craig Woolson) stationed in a remote village. His assignment is to teach Democracy to the natives by following and strictly enforcing the manual of Colonel Purdy (Tony Matthews) his commanding officer, called "Plan B."
His task proves difficult, as the young officer is unprepared for the deeply rooted traditions and ingenious charm of these village people. Fisby finds himself in possession of a first class geisha (a bright and fun loving Kaz Matamura) and succumbs to the will of the majority by using he materials sent to him to build a school to build a teahouse instead.
In an effort to improve the economy of the village, Fisby convinces the people to begin brewing their village's specialty, sweet potato brandy, which he sells to all of the officers' clubs on the island. Trouble is on the horizon as Colonel Purdy begins to suspect that Captain Fisby is not following "Plan B" to the letter.
Rademaekers has given us characters that are richly developed. Sakini's (Keisuke Hoashi) attitude towards American military men is craftily directed. Tony Matthews gives us a three-dimensional performance by offering a glimpse of an understanding father figure behind Colonel Purdy's otherwise hardheaded ignorance.
The attractive Kaz Matamura lights up the stage in the role of Lotus Blossom in a portrayal that is both transcendent and distinguished. Classical Japanese dance veteran Madame Fujima Kansuma supervised Matamura's transformation (hikinuki) which was absolutely breathtaking. Even the supporting characters in the ensemble are so well developed that it is very interesting to watch what is going on in the background. Subtly, Rademaekers created a real village with real relationships among its inhabitants. If you are observant, you may notice things such as Mr. Omura (Rollence Patugan) being very protective of his white coat, with a history behind the coat that only he knows.
The set design by Michael Vaccaro and Mark Preston Miller should be considered for an award. It utilizes the Secret Rose stage to its fullest extent and is an excellent example of fine stagecraft. The curtain (too long missing from small theatre) pulls back to reveal this huge and stunning set that spins and folds in a manner seldom seen on the small stage.
The costumes by Hina Mamamura, some directly from Japan, as well as the props, were carefully chosen and authentic. The pre-show and scene change music, a combination of Okinawan, late 1940s American and Japanese children's music, is meticulously coordinated with the story by Yasuyo Chiba of Wonder Pea Productions.
It is very important to point out again the authenticity of this piece not only in its props and costumes but in its staging. In today's world of insanely out of control "political correctness", producers and directors mounting plays of this nature must ask themselves if they should update the characters to reflect the so-called modern sensibilities of "hip, slick and cool" Asian Americans.
Wisely, Rademaekers and Fire Rose Productions chose to keep the story historically accurate and present the play in the style of the 1950s. Any other choice would have watered down the playwright's message, a message that is very appropriate in light of current world events, and ruined the play. This choice also highlights one of Fire Rose Productions' many goals - to celebrate the unique and exciting differences between races and cultures amongst their multiethnic group.
Shin Minowa is a Tokyo-based writer who frequently travels to Los Angeles.