Friday, March 17, 2017

Struggling Sister Acts

Some call it sibling rivalry. However, depending on how they were brought up, the relationship between sisters is not always competitive.
  • Many older sisters are taught by their parents to look after their younger siblings at home as well as at school. 
  • Many younger sisters learn to how to please their parents or succeed in life by mimicking what works for their older sisters (in school as well as at home).
  • Many older sisters lead the way for their younger siblings to develop an interest in learning how to play a musical instrument, participate in a sport at school, or take ballet classes.
  • Many younger sisters wear a steady stream of clothes that have been handed down from their older sisters.
Whether they arrive as conjoined twins, identical twins, fraternal twins, or were born several years apart, unless they were raised in a highly dysfunctional family most sisters were taught to support and protect each other from bullies, boys, bad habits, and bad teachers. What happens when sisters get split up after one moves to another city, state, college, or country? Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Do cultural traditions remain intact? Or do age-old resentments never die?

Two Bay area theatre companies recently staged dramas whose core poignancy arose from the tense relationships between sisters who had been born in Asia but spent some time living in America. The issues which kept them apart were fascinating (and often regrettable). However, the instincts which bonded them together were inescapable.

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TheatreWorks Silicon Valley recently unveiled a production of Velina Hasu Houston's play, Calligraphy, that was directed with great sensitivity by Leslie Martinson. At its dramatic core, Calligraphy deals with two Japanese sisters who have not spoken to each other for many years.

When World War II ended, Noriko (Emily Kuroda) and her older sister, Natsuko (Jeanne Sakata), were living in Matsuyama when Noriko's chance meeting with an American soldier created an unexpected spark. Eamon Jameson (William Thomas Hodgson) kept pursuing her, eventually overcoming Noriko's shyness by suggesting that they meet at a cinema where she and her friends liked to watch American movies. One thing led to another and, when Noriko agreed to accompany Eamon to a dance (where they could waltz together), he proposed.

Emily Kuroda (Noriko) and William Thomas Hodgson (Eamon) 
in a scene from Calligraphy (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Their marriage caused a rift between the two sisters because (a) Noriko moved to Kansas with her new husband, and (b) Natsuko, who could not hide her disgust that her brother-in-law was African American, always referred to Eamon as "that black Yankee." Thanks to advances in telecommunications, however, Noriko's daughter, Hiromi (Mia Tagano), and Natusko's daughter, Sayuri (Elizabeth Pan), have maintained a close online relationship by means of a video chat program on their computers. Robert Kelley, the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, adds an interesting historical perspective in his program note entitled The Brushstrokes of Time:
“We produced our first Velina Hasu Houston play 27 yeears ago in 1990. Simply entitled Tea, it was the story of a Japanese war bride who, against the convictions of her family, married an African-American serviceman in the years following World War II. She wound up living as an immigrant in small-town Kansas, finding solace in the company of other Japanese women who shared the same challenging life in a new world. We chose the play for its touching insight into the lives of these women, but also for its honest exploration of a racially mixed family in a reluctantly changing America. Tea became a major hit for TheatreWorks, and demonstrated an emerging Silicon Valley eager to better know its neighbors of Asian heritage.

Since then, our Valley has changed dramatically, and now boasts an Asian population of over 30%. What’s more, California’s population of mixed race people has also continued to grow. That’s what makes this final chapter of Houston’s family story such an important journey for TheatreWorks. Tea was set in a late 60s America still harboring post-war prejudice toward the Japanese and ongoing prejudice toward any mixing of the races. Calligraphy jumps forward three decades to reveal that same mother in the care of an adult daughter who is determined to reconcile a different prejudice of the past, a Japanese version of racism that once tore her family apart. The two daughters add a startling contrast: a mixed-race American consumed by her Japanese roots and a native Japanese consumed by American culture.”
Mia Tagano (Hiromi) and Elizabeth Pan (Sayuri)
in a scene from Calligraphy (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Calligraphy begins with Hiromi visiting her mother in Kansas several months after Eamon's death. Like many widows, Noriko is depressed, seemingly distracted. and misses her husband's company. Although initially resistant to her daughter's suggestion that she relocate to Los Angeles (where they could be closer together), Noriko's behavior is starting to include signs and symptoms of forgetfulness and agitation which could easily be attributed to the process of mourning.

Emily Kuroda as Noriko, a woman in the early stages of Alzheimer's
disease, in a scene from Calligraphy (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Since moving to Los Angeles, Noriko's behavior has become increasingly worrisome. After discovering that her mother's driver's license has been revoked by the state of Kansas (because Noriko failed to renew it), Hiromi is forced to take away her mother's car keys. When an African-American policeman delivers the confused Noriko to her daughter's home, a doctor's visit reveals early signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Ever since Eamon's death, Hiromi and Sayuri have been conspiring to engineer a family reunion someplace in Japan that could bring their mothers together. Following Noriko's plea that she be taken home to Matsuyama one more time before she dies, the daughters accelerate their plans. However, after Natsuko takes a nasty fall and insists that her daughter travel from Tokyo to Matsuyama to care for her (even it Sayuri must risk losing her job), the prospects for a family reunion become increasingly tenuous. Natsuko is developing a crush on a young man who is secretly Sayuri's boyfriend while Noriko's problems are causing unexpected tensions in Hiromi's relationship with her husband.

Elizabeth Pan (Sayuri) and Jeanne Sakata (Natsuko)
in a scene from Calligraphy (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

While it would be easy to assume that Calligraphy is all about Noriko's descent into full-fledged Alzheimer's, Houston's play shifts in tone as the action moves to Japan.
  • Having spent many years as a spiteful, manipulative bitch, Natsuko has no plans to mellow with age. Her self-serving talents as a needy and narcissistic dragon mother are increasingly burdensome to Sayuri. 
  • By this point, Noriko has becoming increasingly restless, with more frequent mood swings and episodes of perseveration as she bounces between memories of her childhood in Japan and moments of fierce adult clarity.
  • Meanwhile, Sayuri and Hiromi are feeling weighed down by the cultural burdens of filial piety.
Elizabeth Pan (Sayuri) and Mia Tagano (Hiromi)
in a scene from Calligraphy (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Erik Flatmo's stark unit set provides a handsome framework for David Lee Cuthbert's vivid and often enchanting projections, while Gregory Robinson's sound design and Alina Bokovikova's costumes (both contemporary and traditional) help to keep the audience in touch with the cultural differences between contemporary life in Japan, the United States, and cyberspace.

Jeanne Sakata (Natsuko) and Emily Kuroda (Noriko)
in a scene from Calligraphy (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The cast is uniformly strong, although in different styles and for very different reasons (I was especially touched by the work of William Thomas Hodgson, who doubled as Eamon and a police officer). When push comes to shove, the audience realizes that Sayuri and Hiromi have, in essence, become their own mothers. One is self-centered and likes to hide beneath a blonde wig; the other is tender, giving, and more concerned with honesty. One is impulsive and oriented toward short-term goals while the other is self-sacrificing and able to keep the long picture in mind. As Robert Kelley notes:
"Calligraphy focuses on a generation that came to maturity in the 1950s, a time when the world’s nations and races seemed much further apart. I wonder what kind of diverse world upcoming generations will find here in Silicon Valley. What family dysfunctions will we resolve at long last? What lingering prejudices will we eventually recognize and surmount? What cultural, religious, and political conflicts will we finally put to rest?"
Elizabeth Pan (Sayuri) and Mia Tagano (Hiromi)
in a scene from Calligraphy (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

For those (like myself) who have lost a parent or close relative to Alzheimer's disease, there is an extra layer of poignancy in experiencing the ebb and flow of Houston's drama. Performances of Calligraphy continue through April 2 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto (click here for tickets).

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As much as I like to keep the drama in my life onstage, there's nothing to protect me from experiencing a nightmare when I drift off to sleep -- the kind of action adventure film that wildly shifts from one scene to another with an amazing color palette and graphics that defy the standard three dimensions. When caught up in a nightmare there's no time to analyze a situation, predict a likely outcome, or press the "pause" button to collect one's thoughts. The closest analogy I can offer is the difference between riding a computer-designed, state-of-the-art roller coaster or one of those rickety old-school amusement park rides like the Wild Mouse.

Upon entering the newly renovated Potrero Stage for the Bay area premiere of You For Me For You, audiences were confronted with Maya Linke's unit set resembling a top-down view of a honeycomb (a mere hint at the frenzy with which creepy-crawly things that go bump in the night might wander around the darker recesses of one's mind). The protagonists in Crowded Fire Theater's production of Mia Chung's adrenaline-packed, white-knuckle psychological journey are two sisters desperately trying to escape the misery of living under the thumb of North Korea's omnipotent "Dear Leader."

Struggling to survive in a society that makes life in George Orwell's 1984 seem like a luxury resort, the audience first encounters the two sisters as they argue over which one deserves to eat the scant amount of soup available for dinner.
  • Minhee (Kathryn Han) is the older sister whose son has been sent away to a re-education camp and whose husband has been "disappeared." Her maternal instinct makes her repress her own hunger pangs so that her younger sister can get some nourishment.
  • Junhee (Grace Ng) is more willing to take the risk of crossing over into China in the hope of having a life worth living. But when the moment arrives to make their break, Minhee gets cold feet and stays in Pyongyang while Junhee's path eventually leads to Manhattan (which might as well be Mars), where she attempts to pursue a cliché-ridden American dream after meeting a generous and idealistic black man from the American South (Julian Green).
Grace Ng and Julian Green in a scene from
You For Me For You (Photo by: Pak Han)

With costumes by Michelle Mulholland, lighting designed by David K. H. Elliott, and a powerful soundscape designed by James Ard, the two sisters try to navigate separate obstacle courses which include:
  • Ineffective government doctors who administer useless medications while communicating with their terrified patients in the North Korean version of doublespeak (as well as threatening to report them for daring to question their authority).
  • Trees which (like Kellyanne Conway's "alternative" microwave ovens) can eavesdrop on peoples' conversations and, perhaps even, their thoughts.
  • Frogs that can mysteriously point the way toward a journey as bizarre as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
  • Bureaucrats who speak in riddles.
Kathryn Han and Jomar Tagatac in a scene
from You For Me For You (Photo by: Pak Han) 

As the playwright explains:
“It goes without saying that North Korea is ripe for the imagination (North Korea itself employs magic realism in the weaving of its national narrative). When I sat down to write about my growing fascination with this nation, I made a deliberate choice to employ magic realism as a narrative strategy rather than attempt to depict the country realistically. That an ailing North Korean woman could (and would) cross her country’s border safely, alone, and start a new life in the West is a highly unrealistic proposition. It happens, but it doesn’t happen often and never without random, crucial luck or help (something akin to magic). A selective use of fantasy and miracle indirectly underscores the actual impossibility that North Koreans face if they wish to live differently from their country’s program.” 
Jomar Tagatac, Kathryn Han, and Julian Green in a
scene from You For Me For You (Photo by: Pak Han) 

While Mia Chung's script can rush from the ridiculously sublime bursts of gibberish regurgitated by Elissa Beth Stebbins to Jomar Tagatac's macabre description of the numerous ways in which Minhee's husband was beaten, tortured, humiliated, and murdered, Crowded Fire's five-actor ensemble deserves special credit for their fierce concentration and ability to carry a story forward without losing control of the narrative. Part of their success is due to the spectacular direction by M. Graham Smith, who points to the underlying message behind Minhee and Junhee's hair-raising adventures:
"I am grateful to engage with this story precisely now because it upends our assumptions about refugees so beautifully. Here in the United States, current political rhetoric has effectively focused national anger on the neediest and is targeting the few lifelines of hope and possibility that exist for them. The vulnerable among us are more vulnerable than ever.

The play’s strategy unfolds by placing us directly into the twin journeys of refugee sisters, giving us their unfolding path of new, ever more wondrous and resonant adventures, cataloging success after success won through determination and innovation. It’s the story of striving, of discovery, of becoming, of life in transformation. It gives us the story of two women of color, disenfranchised by their country, who make the impossible choice to leave everything they know and leap into the crossing, a place defying the very laws of physics. They leap toward an outcome of absolute uncertainty, without security, and unlike other refugee narratives, this is not a story of their victimhood."
Grace Ng and Elissa Beth Stebbins in a scene
from You For Me For You (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Since November 2012 (when You For Me For You received its world premiere from the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.), America’s political landscape has been turned upside down and inside out by the rise of Donald Trump to the Presidency and the invasion of our government by white supremacists.
“In our capitalist world, most stories are made to sell stuff. This story is different. It reveals our vulnerability to be a great gift, the most obvious and fabulous evidence of our humanity and one which can only be attained on a journey. Our culture today tells us that vulnerability is the most shameful, unpleasant state in the world. Elections are predicated on banishing the very sensation. Countries around the world have succumbed to fear, demonizing refugees as the cause of instability, economic scarcity, and danger where they are resettled. But this play presents the value of vulnerability in a reversal so subversive we may not even notice at first how beautifully our expectations have been flipped.

Our sisters’ vulnerability offers us all a glimpse of what it means to confront our truest self and to discover what makes up our core. What makes their experience so remarkable is their vulnerability. They grow and develop and bloom precisely because of it. Vulnerability is presented as a state of proud self-discovery and actualization. It means, in part, accepting that you are precisely enough to do what must be done. It stands in stark contrast to an outlook that operates out of fear and in response to bullying, nationalism, or even the endless carrots of capitalism’s aspirational materialism.”
Director M. Graham Smith

In addition to the bravura performances of Kathryn Han and Grace Ng as the two sisters, Jomar Tagatac acts as a narrative shapeshifter, moving in and out of 16 characters with nightmarish dexterity. As the relatively benign Man from the South, Julian Green is the sole embodiment of the hope of having one's romantic dreams fulfilled.

While many encounters whiz by in a flash, one recurring image which sticks in the mind is the confusion written across Junhee's face each time she is confronted with a language barrier personified by Elissa Beth Stebbins as a fast-talking English-speaking character who slowly becomes more understandable as Junhee assimilates into American culture. In a jaw-dropping performance, Stebbins delivers her nonsensical monologues with the crisp diction and stunning proficiency associated with some of the great comic tenors who made a specialty out of flawlessly performing Gilbert and Sullivan's tongue-twisting patter songs (such as "I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major General.)"

With this thrilling and provocative production, Crowded Fire Theater continues to build on its solid legacy of fearlessly producing new works that not only challenge its audience, but can make people laugh, squirm, and cry. Performances of Mia Chung's impressive dramedy, You For Me For You, continue at the Potrero Stage through April 1 (click here for tickets).

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