The New York City nonprofit theater world has come together for a star-studded benefit for Japanese theater companies on this Sunday’s anniversary of the massive northern Japan earthquake and tsunami.
The effort, Shinsai: Theaters for Japan ( “shinsai” means “great earthquake” in Japanese) is billed as a nationwide initiative, but it has gained little traction in Los Angeles, where leading companies say they weren’t approached until too late, if at all.
In Manhattan, Patti LuPone, Richard Thomas and Mary Beth Hurt will be among the performers in two shows at the Cooper Union Great Hall – the venerable venue where Abraham Lincoln delivered his 1859 Cooper Union Address.
In Los Angeles, the Loyola Marymount University department of theater arts and dance will stage a benefit Sunday at 8 p.m. in the campus’ 175-seat Strub Theatre, and the Cal State Los Angeles theater department will offer staged readings Sunday at 3 p.m. in the lobby of the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A. Playwright-actor Jeanne Sakata will recite a Shinsai-related poem as a curtain raiser for the Sunday matinee at the Theatre@Boston Court in Pasadena.
The New York performances, directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher, will feature all 17 short works and songs written, revised or specifically authorized for the occasion by such eminences as Edward Albee, John Guare, Suzan-Lori Parks, Doug Wright, Richard Greenberg and the composer-librettist team of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, who updated and combined two songs from their musical, “Pacific Overtures,” (pictured) with a new narration focused on the 2011 disaster.
Seven of the plays are by Japanese writers, and two come from California-based Japanese-Americans, Berkeley playwright Philip Kan Gotanda and Naomi Iizuka, who heads the playwriting program at UC San Diego.
For every visionary who endures mockery and adversity to realize his or her dreams, millions of other visionaries endure mockery and adversity and then go back to their day jobs. We don’t hear so much about those visionaries. As dramas from “Henry V” to “The Bad News Bears” attest, there’s little more satisfying than watching an unconventional prophet lead an unpromising team to victory against all odds.
East West Players is presenting the “mainland premiere” of “Three Year Swim Club,” a play in this tradition by the Hawaiian writer Lee Tonouchi, based on the true story of Soichi Sakamoto, a science teacher in Maui who, in 1937, decided to turn the children of sugar cane workers into an Olympic swim team — despite not being a swimmer himself or having access to a pool.
Sakamoto developed his training regimen by observing animals in nature, and the kids swam in the plantation’s irrigation ditches. Somehow you know right from the outset that neither the jeering of the other islanders nor even the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics (because of WWII) can deter this plucky bunch.
Although the story is predictable, it is well told, with affectionate, lively characterizations, gentle humor and fresh ingredients. The characters speak in pidgin English — Tonouchi is a pro-pidgin activist who calls himself “Da Pidgin Guerrilla” — which is easy to follow and enhances the charm of this production’s entirely Hawaii-born cast, including Jared Asato as humble hero Keo, Mapuana Makia as his spirited love interest, Kelsey Chock as blustery but sweet-natured Halo, Blake Kushi as the stalwart coach and Kaliko Kauahi as his drily witty wife.
Director and choreographer Keo Woolford uses hula-inspired dance to evoke swimming; the routines are beautiful if a bit monotonous (like swimming itself, actually). Adam Flemming’s striking set includes a raffia backdrop where he projects flickering images, and an alluring blue glow represents the irrigation ditch. All of these elements come together to warm your heart so powerfully that you may feel it has vacationed in Maui.
“Three Year Swim Club.”David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., L.A. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 11. $26 to $36. (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
[For the record: An earlier version of this review misspelled Jared Asato.]
Photo: Coach Sakamoto (Blake Kushi, top) trains his team (Chris Takemoto-Gentile, Mapuana Makia, Kelsey Chock and Jared Asato) in “Three Year Swim Club.” Credit: Michael Lamont.
If marriage is a long plane ride, do you share the window or strand your mate in the middle seat? Such dilemmas define “The Language Archive,” Julia Cho’s sweet, meandering comedy now in revival at East West Players.
Linguist George (the excellent Ryun Yu) studies dying languages with a passion. “The task is quite Sisyphean,” he tells us — but is he speaking of ancient tongues or efforts to connect with his wife, Mary (Kimiko Gelman), a frequent crier who leaves passive-aggressive notes in her husband’s morning tea. Relationship fluency even fails Resten (Nelson Mashita) and Alta (Jeanne Sakata), an older couple who refuse to use their rare, mellifluous native dialect to fight — they prefer English for insults. Meanwhile, George’s assistant, Emma (Jennifer Chang), struggles to learn the universal language of Esperanto, even though there’s only one person she longs to converse with.
For all its lovelorn characters, “Language” is a play of ideas, a style reinforced by set designer Francois-Pierre Couture’s giant wall of multicolored filing cabinets that open to reveal doors, recording devices and secrets. Add E.B. Brooks’s vibrant, slightly fairy-tale costumes and a certain wonderful smell, and the overall effect is a sensuality that deepens what can sometimes be more of an essay than a story. (You may also find yourself pretty hungry by the curtain call.)
You never know when you’ll need a Post-it. Those sticky yellow squares come in awfully handy in “A Widow of No Importance,” Shane Sakhrani’s broad, buoyant comedy now receiving its world premiere at East West Players. Anchored by winning performances from its romantic leads, this “Something’s Gotta Give”-style sex comedy gains added spice from its colorful Mumbai setting.
Two years after her husband’s death, Deepa (Lina Patel) is a proper Indian widow: She dresses only in white, stays at homeand prays to Krishna. Meanwhile, her leggy, free-spirited daughter, Tara (Puja Mohindra), prefers “Sex and the City” to spiritual meditation. Even worse, she’d rather go to graduate school in America than submit to an arranged marriage.
This generation gap narrows unexpectedly after a desperate confession by next-door neighbor Vinod (Sunil Malhotra), a childhood friend of Deepa’s son, Sandeep (Parvesh Cheena). It seems mild-mannered accountant Vinod, recently divorced, has always been madly in love with Deepa. Despite the widow’s shocked resistance, the younger man sweeps her into a fantasy world of passion. (After first covering the eyes of her late husband’s portrait with a certain office supply.)
What will she tell her children, especially after Tara develops her own feelings for Vinod? This guy is so sensitive, he kisses books when they fall off the shelf. Clearly a keeper.
Sure, it’s a sitcom setup. But what sells this familiar material is the verve with which it’s delivered. Director Shaheen Vaaz isn’t afraid to go big with the comedy, a strategy that works because of her disciplined cast.
Wax on, wax off: A b-boy needs his tightest moves to win the girl in “Krunk Fu Battle Battle,” the high-energy hip-hop musical now receiving its world premiere at East West Players. Short on originality but charged with exuberance, this mash-up of “The Karate Kid” and “Step Up” works best as a delivery system for kinetic eye candy.
Qui Nguyen’s book is narrated by Sir Master Cert (Blas Lorenzo), an original b-boy (breakdancer) who pretended to be Fresh Off the Boat after crushing on Brooklyn home girl Jean (Joan Almedilla), who worked after school in an immigration center.
Years later, a struggling Jean returns to the hood with her preppy teenage son, Norman (Lawrence Kao). His polo shirt clashing with the tough streets of Sunset Park, Norman gets an urban makeover from Wingnut (the fluid Matt Tayao) and promptly falls for slam poet Cindy Chang (Liza B. Domingo). But Cindy belongs to the legendary krunk (street dance) king Three-Point (Leng Phe), so Norman will have to win her in a dance-off. It’s up to Sir Master Cert — by way of choreographer Jason Tyler Chong -- to teach Norman and crew his sick spins, coin drops and windmills.
Under Tim Dang’s brisk direction, the cast winningly commits to this after-school special material, with Lorenzo’s charm (and mad hip-hop skills) setting the tone. Never mind that the expressive but oddly static songs by Beau Sia and Marc Macalintal can’t approach the sheer dynamism of the show’s dance music (supplied by Chong and Rynan Paguio, and DJ'd on stage by Gingee). It’s all about the moves, and the cast moonwalks, slide-glides and pops with exhilaration.
Norman and Cindy are meant to be together, but can the same be said of hip-hop and traditional theater? It’s almost always an awkward date: sudden gesture versus slow, narrative build. “Krunk Fu” doesn’t offer any new solutions for this odd couple, but what the show lacks in overall form, it makes up with sporadic fireworks.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“Krunk Fu Battle Battle” David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 26. $40-$50. Contact: (213) 625-7000 or www.EastWestPlayers.org Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Photo: Matt Tayao, (left to right, in foreground) Evan Moua, Blas Lorenzo, Cesar Cipriano and Lawrence Kao, with additional cast in the background. Credit: Michael Lamont.
It will be L.A.'s second time hosting the gathering of scores of Asian American theater professionals. Los Angeles was home for the inaugural conference in 2006; the second conference, in 2008, was held in Minneapolis.
In planning this summer's event, organizers took a broad view of the term "Asian American," which over the years has evolved to include not only the historic core constituencies of Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, but also artists of Korean, Vietnam, Cambodian, Indian, Hmong and Pacific Island heritage.
"We tried not to say, ‘You’re Asian, you’re not Asian,’ or, ‘You’re only half-Asian.’ If you self-identify as Asian, then we welcome you into our community," said Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players.
To read more on the conference, click here.
-- Reed Johnson
Photo: Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players. Credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times
If Charlie Sheen leaves “Two and a Half Men,” CBS may want to scout “Wrinkles,” Paul Kikuchi’s slick comedy now at East West Players. This mature sitcom — and I mean that in every sense — features a smooth single guy with a vigorous interest in chicks. He just happens to be a grandpa.
Widower Harry (Sab Shimono) lives in Pasadena with divorced daughter Nancy (Amy Hill), a lawyer, and her teenage son, Jason (Ki Hong Lee). Their lives are predictably aspirational, a feeling effectively conveyed by set designer Alan E. Muraoka’s middle-class home, impressive enough to deserve its own MLS listing. But all is not as it appears. A Trader Joe’s bag turns up containing something other than Joe’s O’s, and its youthful owner soon arrives (Elizabeth Ho), attired in what can be termed only as Early “Pretty Woman.” It seems Harry is an Internet sensation, and not for biting anyone’s finger. He is indeed big in Japan, where elder porn generates millions as the hottest new twist on adult entertainment.
Don’t wince: There’s nothing in “Wrinkles” that would offend your average Sunday school teacher. The appeal of this slight but good-natured comedy lies in Kikuchi’s light touch with matters sexual and the charm of the players. The excellent Hill conjures a Tiger Mom attorney with killer timing, and Shimono has an unapologetic directness that makes his purported stardom credible.
No one will be able to accuse Theatre Communications Group of not posing the big questions at its 50th anniversary national conference in June in Los Angeles (the L.A. Times broke the story last September).
What, TCG plans to ask the expected 1,000 attendees, will theater look like in the next half-century? How best to engage audiences and cultivate cultural variety? What are the most promising new business models for theaters? And what's a strategy for making theater "central to the fabric of our country," as TCG ambitiously puts it?
In a phone interview Wednesday, Teresa Eyring, TCG's executive director, said her organization hopes to inspire its members to envision the future of the American theater by addressing the theme: "What if...?" The essential challenge, she said, is how to build on "a miraculous and wonderful theater ecosystem" that was nurtured by the development of the not-for-profit regional theater movement beginning in the early 1960s.
But, Eyring added with a laugh, "we are encouraging not just the big, comprehensive uber-questions. There could be what-if's even about small, practical matters."
It’s not outer space but inner demons that menace in “Mysterious Skin,” the dark drama now staged by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater. Nerdy Brian (Scott Keiji Takeda) believes he was abducted by aliens at the age of 8, an event somehow tied to Neil (David Huynh), a former Little League teammate turned hustler. As Brian puts together the broken clues of his life, he begins to wonder whether he was probed by space creatures or experienced a close encounter of a more earthly kind.
Gregg Araki filmed Scott Heim’s cult novel in 2004 to some acclaim, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil. This East West Players stage production captures a certain eerie vibe, enhanced by John Zalewski’s sound design and Alan E. Muraoka’s set, a chain link fence behind which looms a massive blue moon. But while Prince Gomolvilas’ adaptation contains some strong monologues, his sense of narrative falters. The storytelling is schematic, and Brian’s quest never feels as urgent as Neil’s self-destructive path. It’s a shortcoming that can’t be blamed on Takeda or Huynh, who give performances of affecting vulnerability. In their eyes, the terror and pleasure of contact are very real.
For mature audiences only.
“Mysterious Skin,” Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 10. $25-$35. (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org. Running time: 2 hours.
Photo: David Huynh and Christine Corpus in "Mysterious Skin." Credit: Michael Lamont.
Prop masters are among the theater's unsung heroes. The audience rarely notices what they do -- or, rather, it may appreciate seeing that Victorian teapot or old icebox but have no clue about the effort it took to get them onstage.
Their colleagues, however, realize that good prop people are essential to making a production work and feel right. They value those with a knack for knowing just what item is needed and -- especially in these tough times -- how to beg, borrow or build whatever they can't afford to buy.
Which is why East West Players loves Ken Takemoto.
The 75-year-old prop master's Rube Goldbergian creations are legend at East West -- the nation's leading Asian American theater company -- as is his eye for detail and penchant for bargains.
Plus, Takemoto is as fun-loving and feisty as colleagues half his age -- and busier than most of them. When he's not working at East West, he is helping out other stage groups, scouting thrift shops and the occasional Dumpster for treasures and pursuing a side career as an actor and dancer.
To find out more about Ken Takemoto, see my story in Sunday's Arts & Books section.
-- Karen Wada
Photo: The master, with "Pippin" duck. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times