Through Asian eyes

Two world premieres: One works, and the other tries . . .

Aside from being a great word to use when filling out a grant application, multiculturalism is (or possibly was) a pretty nifty idea. In a century that has seen the toppling of Dead White Guys as the pinnacle of taste in art and fashion, it just makes sense to encourage other voices in the arts to have their say—as long as what they're saying is, well, worth hearing.

Red

Intiman Theater, 269-1900

ends September 26

The Summer Moon

A Contemporary Theater, 292-7676

ends September 27

Chay Yew's Red was originally developed as part of Intiman's "New Voices" series last year, traveling from reading to workshop and finally to full production. It seems to have missed a couple of vital steps along the way. Certainly Yew's theme is promising. Inspired by his conversations with the Chinese actress Tsai Chin, Red focuses on the events of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, in which the Communist regime's insistence on "state-sanctioned" art led not only to ludicrously bad work, but to the persecution of artists accused of defying the party's aims. Yew focuses on the conflict between the Beijing Opera performer Hua (Sab Shimono) and his daughter Lin (Michi Barall). The struggle is political and personal. Denied the paternal and artistic approval she seeks, Lin joins the Red Brigade and tries to take both by force.

This story is related to us by Sonja (Jeanne Sakata), a Chinese-American romance writer who's attempting to interview Hua for a new work. At first glance Sonja seems to be that old stand-by, the "unreliable narrator"; she seeks from Hua a story that supports her ideas about the role of an artist in society. But as we begin to weave back and forth between past and present, between reality and fiction, it becomes obvious that the unreliable narrator is the playwright himself, whose time scheme is terminally confusing. Is Hua alive today? Is Sonja really his daughter? When did Lin join the Red Guard? Why does my head ache?

In addition to a structure gone seriously awry, this play is drenched in simplistic generalities about its subject matter. Surely we should learn something about the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese Opera from the play itself and not just from the program notes. Instead, the play shows us that the Communist authorities were bad (repressive, violent, homophobic, and self-aggrandizing), and that the Chinese Opera (which for Yew is a stand-in for "Art") was good, or at least colorful, or at least very old. The revolution itself is a vast unexplained catastrophe in Yew's play. As for the Opera, we're never given any reason to value it aside from some gorgeous costumes.

The flaws in Yew's script might not have been so obvious were it not for two of the three performances. Jeanne Sakata as Sonja is overemphatic and wooden; this almost works for the superficial romance novelist we meet at the play's beginning, but becomes increasingly inadequate as the play progresses. Michi Barrall as Lin is clearly overwhelmed by the range her part requires. As a member of the Red Guard, she's about as intimidating as a kitten threatening a burglar. Only Sab Shimono as Hua, while lacking any sort of authenticity as an Opera actor specializing in adolescent girl roles, maintains his head while all those around him are losing theirs, creating an immovable presence in the play's center that is its greatest strength.

Over at ACT, John Olive's The Summer Moon offers a vision of American culture as seen through the eyes of a Japanese salesman. In Southern California of 1958, Naotake Fukushima (Greg Watanabe) faces dishonor unless he is able to sell the vehicles of his Japanese auto firm to the newly opened American market. His handicaps are many, including a poor grasp of English, little experience with American business practices, and most notably the automobile he's been asked to peddle, a truck that's sturdily built but outrageously old-fashioned.

Summer Moon is a memory play, with Fukushima acting as a narrator to the events of the past, sharing his experiences as an act of confession and self-explanation. But Olive is also slyly undermining the entire convention by giving us a storyteller so self-effacing of his own story. "I am a terrible narrator," he says at one point, frustrated—but the story takes place in spite of him.

As played by Watanabe, Fukushima is a marvelous bundle of contradictions: a salesman who doesn't know how to sell, a man both in love with the West and in terror of it, an employee given a job he's expected to fail at but who becomes a success. Partly it's all due to a little help from his friends. Rosie (Tamlyn Tomita), a migrant farm worker, becomes his sales partner and lover. Arnie (Robert Knepper), Rosie's former love who flew bombing raids over Japan during World War II, engineers an unlikely promotional campaign via a kidnapping.

Throughout the play you can almost hear the constant grinding friction between Eastern and Western sensibilities, though it's rarely in the foreground. The playwright tells us a classic American success story, but the trappings are intriguingly other: a man weeping beside the car he's supposed to sell, a night in the desert with two men trading poems, a couple making love in a field after tasting its soil. At times Olive strives too hard for effect, as with a lengthy dialogue set in an ocean cave, but throughout the piece you're never in doubt that the playwright knows exactly where he's going and how to get there.

 
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