Saturday, March 19, 2016

Chamber Works: When Less Is More

Back when I was a small and extremely impressionable child, my father used to tell me bedtime stories about a little boy named Pinky, who was as small as my father's fifth finger. Because he was so tiny, Pinky was able to explore parts of the world that were impossible for fully-grown adults to experience.

Though these stories were completely fictional, Pinky's experiences helped to build a sense of wonder and awe in our family. While, as a child, I was totally under the spell of my father's power as a narrator, I had not yet learned to think of myself as a captive audience, someone who was happily participating in the process of storytelling.

If one thinks about how stories are transmitted these days, it becomes obvious that readers of fiction still complete the picture mentally that an author creates in their minds. Even if they have never traveled back in time to ancient Egypt (Aida), the guilds of 16th-century Germany (Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg), legendary China (Turandot) -- or the Parisian life depicted in Puccini's La Bohème, La Rondine, Il Tabarro, and Manon LescautVerdi's La Traviata, Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, Picker's Thérèse Raquin, Leoncavallo's Zaza and La BohèmeStrauss's Capriccio, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, Charpentier's Louise, Donizetti's Maria di Rohan and Ugo, conte di ParigiOffenbach's La Vie Parisienne, Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, or Massenet's Manon and Sappho -- those who listen to opera recordings are able to envision the story taking place in their minds through the powers of musical suggestion and the use of their own imagination.

Whereas many films move so quickly and deliver so much visual stimulation that it is difficult for a viewer to "lean into" the story, certain stage works have been written in such a way that they offer audiences dramas resting on a curious foundation of fragility. Or, in particularly intimate moments, an ethereal kind of delicacy.

As they try to weigh the dramatic impact of tacit glances, wistful sighs, and moments of silence that can bring more depth to a drama, many have likened this downsized form of storytelling to chamber music. The Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco, explains the need for an audience to feel the moment and respond to the inherent music of a playwright's language as follows:
"People who have seen a lot of my work would say that there is emotional truth in my productions, a desire for rhythm and for the event of coming together. I definitely think of great works by Samuel Beckett -- deep, funny, and spare -- that put language in the hands of brilliant actors who leave room for us to feel the deepest despair and maybe the greatest hope. As a director, I try to stay a couple of steps ahead of the audience so that they are always leaning forward. I want people to recognize their deepest souls here, to let the audience do the heavy lifting.

Ultimately, the alchemy comes when the audience and the actors are all in the same space. The lights go down. The guy next to me laughs. Somebody gasps. The lady behind me laughs longer than anybody else. There’s a shared vocabulary that’s actively being created. Hopefully, that community is built right there in the first couple of minutes of the performance so that we might feel we are not alone in our vulnerability.”
Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco

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Greco's impressive craft and formidable talent can be seen in her staging of Will Eno's wonderful new play, The Realistic Joneses, in which she helps to shape a mildly absurdist script into an "easy-to-relate-to" one-act play. With lighting design by Robert Wierzel and sound design by David van Tieghem, the American Conservatory Theater's production is beautifully framed by Andrew Boyce's set design. A scenic artist who has worked with Greco on numerous projects, Boyce explains that:
"As with most of my work, light will play an important role in how we experience the design, both in mood and context. My initial impression was that this isn’t a play that asks for moving scenery, but instead asks the audience to embrace a flexible reality (one where their perceptions of the space and environment onstage are primarily changed through how the actors use the space to embody that change). A shift in light -- or even a specific sound in the background -- can affect our understanding of where we are.”
Rebecca Watson (Jennifer Jones) and Rod Gnapp (Bob Jones)
in a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Eno's play focuses on two couples who share more than the same surname. Bob Jones (Rod Gnapp) and his wife, Jennifer (Rebecca Watson), have been living in a suburban landscape where the stars shine brightly and the night air is filled with owls hooting and a wide variety of bird calls. Their living situation would seem like a birder's paradise except that ornithology is not one of their major concerns.

Rebecca Watson (Jennifer Jones) and her husband, Bob Watson
(Rod Gnapp) in a scene from The Realistic Joneses 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Bob has been wrestling with a mysterious disease (the fictional Harriman Leavey syndrome) whose symptoms are baffling and often debilitating. With no prognosis for how much time he might still have to live, he is understandably moody and tends to reply to his wife's questions with terse, often monosyllabic answers. As Bob's disease has progressed, his communication with Jenny has become increasingly strained. As the playwright notes:
“I wanted to create a disease that was particular enough that it would be seen and felt as a problem, but mysterious or foreign enough that it could stand for the simple looming fact of mortality. It’s important for it to be degenerative, because that’s how it goes. We all have to face this process -- aging, sickness -- that, in some ways, is the opposite of left index finger, but, importantly, we are still alive while it is happening, and we have some time and a lot of choices about how to face it."
James Wagner, Allison Jean White, Rebecca Watson and Rod Gnapp
in a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

One night, as Bob and Jenny are sitting on their patio, they are interrupted by the sound of garbage cans crashing to the ground. Instead of scavenging raccoons, skunks, or a clumsy prowler, the interlopers turn out to be their new neighbors. Probably a generation younger than Bob and Jenny, John (James Wagner) and Pony Jones (Allison Jean White) seem tentatively outgoing, frightfully insecure, and have a curious way of contradicting what they just said before they can even finish a sentence.

Allison Jean White (Pony Jones) and James Wagner (John Jones)
in a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It takes a while for the couples to discover that both husbands are battling the same disease (at one point a distraught Pony seeks help after John has suffered a seizure). But as the two men start to share and discuss their symptoms (and seek solace from each other's wives), they begin to bond as new neighbors might be expected to if they were not sharing a terminal disease.

While ACT's four-actor ensemble does a beautiful job of divulging each of their character's secrets, fears, and lies, the true star of the evening is Eno, a highly acclaimed playwright with a remarkable talent for taking the half sentences we casually utter (and so quickly deny) and weaving them into a nervously comedic quilt that can momentarily calm the internal fears of each couple.

Rod Gnapp (Bob Jones) and Allison Jean White (Pony Jones)
in a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Working on a unit set which has been beautifully lit (and accompanied by a stunning soundscape of avian wildlife), The Realistic Joneses spins a delicate web around the audience while distracting them with laughter. Is Eno creating a reassuring cocoon around his characters or trying to help them make the best of whatever time is left together? As Greco sees it:
“I think the play speaks to who we are as human beings. Will Eno is one of our more potent observers of human behavior. He’s searching for answers to big questions: What does existence mean? Do we ever really know each other? Because, if we know each other, we should be able to share the most terrifying and most beautiful things of our lives. Why is it so hard to connect? This play explores how language isn’t enough and how inexplicable mortality is. It asks questions about how we live, how we connect, and how emotionally capable we are of really relating to one another in the strangest, darkest of times.

The Realistic Joneses is a dance about what it is to be human. There is an economy, a beautiful spareness, and it adds up in this quiet yet seismic way. There’s not an extra syllable. He leaves room for the person who’s experiencing it. With Will, an actor walks in the room and they either get it or they don’t. It’s a pocket of tone that is so peculiar. The actors that don’t get the tone? It doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the emotional construction or the psychological beats. It just means that they’re living in a slightly different pocket of existence.”
John Jones (James Wagner) seeks comfort from Jennifer Jones
(Rebecca Watson) in a scene from The Realistic Joneses
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The Realistic Joneses is one of those rare dramedies that, following a performance, one leaves the theatre wishing to revisit Eno's script as soon as possible in order to luxuriate in his deft writing and bask in the rich atmosphere created by its design team. The scene in which Bob and John stand outside in the middle of the night as the motion detector floodlights on John's house keep illuminating the two men and then leaving them in the dark is a priceless piece of comedic writing.

Bob Jones (Rod Gnapp) and John Jones (James Wagner) in
a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of The Realistic Joneses continue at the American Conservatory Theater through April 3rd (click here to order tickets).

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David Gelb's 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, delighted foodies around the world while exposing them to a work ethic alien to many Millennials. The elderly protagonist, Jiro Ono, is the kind of culinary artisan who embodies the difference between an itamae and a shokunin. Instead of being obsessed with the profit margins of his 10-seat restaurant, he is more concerned with the environmental impact of overfishing and the never-ending artistic challenge of achieving perfection in his craft.

In addition to explaining the importance of the quality and proper preparation of the rice used in making sushi, Gelb's documentary exposed audiences to the concept of an aspiring itamae undergoing a long apprenticeship (perhaps 15 years) as he observes a master sushi chef in action and learns proper techniques. For most Americans, that might seem like a bizarre career path with an unacceptable return on investment. Unless, of course, one hopes to work in a field marked by its passion, integrity, tradition, and art,

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is presenting the regional premiere of Kimber Lee's delightful tokyo fish story on a wonderfully stark and suggestive set designed by Wilson Chin and lit by Dawn Chiang with sound designed by Jeff Mockus. The action takes place "in and around a dingy, declining restaurant called Sushi Koji, which is located on a dingy side street in a dingy, declining neighborhood."

Although tokyo fish story had its world premiere in March 2015 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California and will be staged at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego later this spring, it was part of the 2014 New Works Festival held in Palo Alto. As Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) recalls:
“Given our mission to celebrate the diversity of Silicon Valley, TheatreWorks has done many plays about Asian cultures.  We explored ancient Japan in the drama Rashomon, chronicled its opening to the West in the musical Pacific Overtures, shared the terrors of World War II in Nagasaki Dust, and witnessed the internment of Japanese-Americans in the courtroom drama, Snow Falling on Cedars -- all soaring works about culture and history. This fish story, however, set in a tiny Tokyo restaurant, seemed to be entirely about food!"
Francis Jue (Koji) and Linden Tailor (Nobu) in a
scene from tokyo fish story (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"How wrong I was. For amidst the tuna testing, octopus massaging, and kitchen intrigue was the play of my dreams – a tale of tradition buffeted by change, of demanding fathers and determined sons, of centuries-old prejudice finally overcome. It was a story of genius confronting mediocrity, of generation gaps and gender parity, of love lost but not forgotten -- a TheatreWorks play through and through. It was also about food, a culinary curiosity that had gone from fad to fixture in our Silicon Valley and was threatening the hegemony of mac and cheese in many school cafeterias. In a matter of days. we landed this fish for our 2014 New Works Festival. But with live sushi-making, a floating bicycle, shimmering ghosts, and an onstage river, it prompted one obvious question: ‘How will you ever do that on stage?” I had no idea. Toshi Sakuma (a master Japanese sushi chef from Kaygetsu restaurant in Menlo Park) not only taught the actors the basic skills, he gave them a window into the world of uncompromising excellence that defines the play.”
Koji (Francis Jue) rides his bicycle to the fish market while his son,
Takashi (James Seol) works in their restaurant in a scene
from tokyo fish story (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Working with an exceptional design team, director Kirsten Brandt has done a beautiful job of framing the various dramas happening in and around Koji's fading restaurant, a place whose traditionalist owner reigns supreme while other sushi restaurants that have adopted modern technology have customers lined up around the block.

Unfortunately, the widowed Koji (Francis Jue), is a stubborn old man who resents the "cows" that line up for what he considers to be the "slop" served by his rivals. His oldest son, Takashi (James Seol), took a year off to travel to America and visit his mother. But when Koji became ill, Takashi quickly returned to Tokyo to run his father's business.

Linden Tailor (Nobu) and James Seol (Takashi) in a
scene from tokyo fish story (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Their high-energy assistant, Nobu (Linden Tailor), is an aspiring rapper and Star Wars fanboy whose gusto while massaging octopus can be quickly subdued with a withering look from Koji. Although the hyperenergetic Nobu loves hip hop music and contemporary culture, he dreams of the day when he can become an itamae. Just watching Takashi effortlessly carve a flower out of a radish leaves him in awe of the man's artistry and technique. Meanwhile, Koji is becoming increasingly distracted by visions of his dead wife.

Francis Jue as the aging Koji in a scene from tokyo fish story
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Though Koji may be resistant to change, there is no way to avoid it. His contemporaries at the local fish market are starting to retire, the daily catches reveal bluefin tuna that been caught too soon to have had sufficient life experience to meet his standards, and the challenges of hiring restaurant help appall him. Whether dealing with Oishi (a young party animal whose work ethic could be summed up as "Whatever!") or the blazingly incompetent Yuji (a clumsy young man who thinks his experience helping his mother make sushi at home qualifies him to work in a restaurant), Koji and Takashi are feeling the strain of staying true to their cultural traditions.

To make matters worse, after Oishi is fired, a woman applies for the job! Although she can find work in a new chain of sushi restaurants run by the entrepreneurial Daisuke, Ama (Nicole Javier) longs to be taken on as an apprentice to an established sushi chef.

Nicole Javier and James Seol in a scene from tokyo fish story
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

How Ama eventually gets hired and Takashi's skills are finally allowed to blossom are part of the evolving mystery and beauty of Kimber Lee's script, which balances humor, bitterness, tenderness, Japanese tradition, and the generation gap with remarkable warmth and skill. In addition to the four principals (Francis Jue, James Seol, Linden Tailor, and Nicole Javier), Arthur Keng pops up in numerous guises as the ditsy Oishi, an apprentice tuna dealer, the hapless Yuji, and the entrepreneurial Daisuke.

Performances of tokyo fish story continue through April 3 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto (click here to order tickets). Here's some footage from the world premiere production at South Coast Repertory.

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