Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Far East: People in Changing Times

The immense and brutal warfare between the United States and Japan raged from the surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. American forces occupied Japan after its surrender.

The Occupation brought close to a million Americans to Japan at its height, and even after it was officially over in 1951, a sizeable U.S. military presence remained. By 1954 new U.S. military officers were too young to have served in World War II, and perhaps even the Korean conflict, which ended the year before. Wallace W. “Sparky” Watts is one of them, in A.R. Gurney’s 1998 play Far East, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka.

 His arrival for duty in Japan begins the story but not the play. Playwright Gurney (who served in Japan at about this time) provides the framing device of a Japanese drama. It’s a combination of Kabuki (stylized dance and music to depict historical events involving codes of morality) and Bunraku (puppet theatre, with a single Reader off to the side saying the lines.)

 At Redwood Curtain, director Craig Benson modifies some elements and expands on others. In particular, he and scenic designer Daniel C. Nyiri create a stunning entrance for the Americans with the best physically realized metaphor I’ve seen on a local stage.

 I won’t spoil the surprise of it. But even with no prior knowledge of Japanese drama, it’s pretty clear what happens: the drama is now about Americans, with the Japanese in decidedly supporting roles.

 The basic story of a young officer who falls in love with a Japanese woman in an era of comprehensive racial prejudice, and a parallel story of another young officer dealing with another kind of prejudice, suggest it will be much like some familiar and turgid predecessors. It’s tempting then to assume that the Japanese elements are there as arty distraction.

 But neither is true.  The well known stories of Americans in Japan were told closer to the period--Gurney has the advantage of time gone by to reconsider the common situation with a contemporary perspective.   As for the Japanese elements, the entire play can be seen as the Japanese drama as taken over (for awhile) by Americans and their problems.  That adds an intriguing layer to the evening, but it still works most obviously as a framework for the central story: the young officers avid for their unfolding lives in a world remade and still changing, the Captain dealing with the weight of the past, and the Captain's wife, dealing with the effects of both on her attitudes, behaviors and ultimately her own life.

  Director Benson’s deft moments of humor and the subtle physical commentary of the Japanese characters aside, this is most overtly an absorbing character drama with elements of comedy, and strong cultural and historical undertones. It reveals the living weight of the past and the first signs of the future, but through the lives of these characters in their changing present.

 What makes the play most admirable —and in a way very American—is that without histrionics the characters exhibit and act on self-examination and self-knowledge as well as particular drives and traits. None of the Americans are the same at the end of the play as they were at the beginning, and their decisions about themselves are involved in the changes. Nor are their fates yet decided.

 Potential theatregoers shouldn’t fear heavy weather onstage. There is a kind of buoyancy to this production. It’s a skillful and substantial play with various shades of comic wit by a veteran American playwright that is likely to keep an audience musing about it long after its end.

Thanks to the Japanese drama framework, the small touches added by the production or in the script (the American siren song of "You Belong To Me" linked to the acknowledged appropriateness of Julie Anderson having worked for the Voice of America, for example), all suggest that this play rewards repeated viewings.

 Apart from Benson’s directorial touches, Nyiri’s set and Karen Kenfield’s cinematically vivid costumes, what makes it riveting and real is the cast. Josh Kelly as Watts, Valerie Buxbaum as Julie Anderson, Cody Miranda as Ensign Bob Munger and Lincoln Mitchell as Captain James Anderson are both emblematic and completely convincing as their individual characters.  They look their parts, which works so well because they act so well.

 Theirs are the naturalistic roles. Denise Truong, Craig Kuramada and Jeremy Webb must negotiate roles as both traditional Japanese actors and everybody else, which they do with grace and nuance. This is a play and a production that is a highlight of Redwood Curtain’s season, and of the North Coast season so far.

 Michael Burkhart designed the lighting and Ian Schatz the sound. Far East plays weekends (Thurs.-Sat. evenings at 8, with a Sunday matinee at 2p.m. on Nov. 17) through November 23.

A.R. Gurney is in some ways the American equivalent of the British playwrights like Alan Ayckborne or Michael Frayn among others, who regularly turn out plays--often comedies-- of theatrical inventiveness and social moment. Born in 1930, his plays seemed to be everywhere especially in the 1980s.  Gurney's best known plays are  Love Letters, The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour but there are so many more, like Sylvia, in which the title character is a dog (played originally by Sarah Jessica Parker.)  He's literate, witty and theatrical.  Though his characters tend to be upper middle class whites, there's enough cultural universality for recognition and laughter beyond that demographic.  I'm frankly surprised his work isn't done more on the North Coast.  Here's an interesting interview with him, by another playwright, Romulus Linney.

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