Thursday, April 13, 2017

Haunted By Their Past

Every year, as Jews around the world gather to celebrate the Passover seder, the youngest person at the table asks "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Because everyone is concentrating on retelling the story of how Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, no one ever stops to think about the implications of how that question applies to performances of live theatre. The answer is simple. The audience at each performance is different.
  • From a performer's perspective, one audience may cough more than others; another might be more supportive. 
  • One audience may laugh more heartily at the jokes while another seems to be daring the actors to impress them.
  • One night the show moves like clockwork, eliciting all the right reactions at all the right moments. But on another night, it can feel as if someone sucked all the air (along with the audience's attentiveness) right out of the theatre.
Unlike what happens while watching a movie, with live theatre it's always a crapshoot. Sometimes an actor will be replaced by an understudy; at another performance there may be a problem with the theatre's ventilation system. Mistakes can be made, props can fail, Part of the risk factor is what adds to the electric thrill of a great performance. Barring a power failure or some other kind of catastrophe, the show must go on.

* * * * * * * * *
It was a dark and stormy night. As I walked toward the Custom Made Theatre, gusts of wind were fiercely blowing the rain at me with so much force that it stung my cheeks. I quickly realized that it would be smarter to keep my umbrella folded than to try to walk with it open.

The play I was attending also took place on a dark and stormy night. Directed by Stuart Bousel, Custom Made Theatre was presenting Wendy MacLeod's dark comedy, The House of Yes, which premiered at the Magic Theatre in 1990. The story focuses on a severely dysfunctional family gathering for a tense Thanksgiving dinner while a hurricane rages outside some 20 years after President Kennedy's assassination.

Casey Robbins (Marty) and Caitlin Evenson (Jackie-O)
in a scene from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

The location of the Pascal family's home couldn't be more ironic. Resting in the wealthy suburb of MacLean, Virginia (just outside of Washington, D.C.), the house sits just around the corner from Ethel Kennedy's home, Hickory Hill. Symbolism is not dead.

Shelley Lynn Johnson as Mrs. Pascal in a scene
from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

Although MacLeod's play has only five characters, each one has enough emotional baggage to sink the Titanic.
  • Anthony Pascal (Elliot Lieberman) is the youngest child in the Pascal family. Still living at home with his mother, Anthony is at the awkward stage where he gets all googly-eyed at the sight of a pretty woman.
  • Mrs. Pascal (Shelly Lynn Johnson) is fiercely protective of her daughter. She's got good reason to worry.
  • Jacqueline Pascal (Caitlin Evenson) suffers from a borderline personality disorder and has recently been discharged from a psychiatric hospital. Because of her obsession with JFK's assassination and how it affected his wife (who subsequently married shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis), the Pascal family has gotten in the habit of referring to Jacqueline as Jackie-O. Frantically awaiting her twin brother Marty's arrival, Jackie (a control freak who is easily threatened by anything beyond her control) goes into a jealous snit upon learning that he is bringing a mysterious guest with him to meet the family.
Caitlin Evenson as Jackie-O Pascal in a scene
from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • Marty Pascal (Casey Robbins) is Jackie's twin brother who is now a student hoping to get a somewhat normal life. For many years, he has appeased his sister by participating in her game of re-enacting JFK's assassination. 
  • Lesly (Juliana Lustenader) is the young woman Marty hopes to marry. Although she has been warned that his family is not what anyone would call normal, she's not quite sure how to react when met with open hostility from Marty's mother, lusty stares from his younger brother, and later that night walks in on her fiancĂ© making out with his twin sister.
Elliot Lieberman (Anthony) and Juliana Lustenader (Lesly)
in a scene from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Working on a unit set designed by Zoe Rosenfeld (with costumes by Kathleen Qiu, lighting by Sophia Craven, and sound design by Ryan Lee Short), the five-actor ensemble did their best to put MacLeod's sinister farce across but, alas, that night's performance didn't quite gel. Since word of mouth from the production's opening night (the previous performance) had been quite positive, there are three key factors which may have affected the evening.
  • Unlike most opening nights (which are fairly festive events filled with donors, subscribers, and friends of people involved in the production), a substantial part of the audience consisted of students from the Academy of Art University. Most of them were much too young to have lived through the horror of 1963's Presidential assassination or understand the cultural shock which so deeply affected the nation in its wake. I doubt many of these students have ever seen footage from the Zapruder film. Without such cultural references, it might have been difficult for them to appreciate Jackie Pascal's emotional investment in the personal tragedy faced by Jackie-O.
  • In an age when many people have decorated their bodies with piercings and extensive tattoos, the idea of a societal taboo has lost much of its clout. We're now living in a hookup culture where, instead of provoking outrage, incest could easily be dismissed with one word "Whatever!"
  • There are performances when jokes don't always hit their mark (when calculated pauses which anticipate the audience's laughter are met with split seconds of deadly silence). The same can be said of pregnant pauses meant to build suspense. Unfortunately, there were many such moments during the performance I attended.
Casey Robbins (Marty) and Caitlin Evenson (Jackie-O)
in a scene from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

As a result, a wickedly witty script felt surprisingly clunky. Despite appealing performances by Elliot Lieberman and Julia Lustenader, Caitlin Evenson (whose portrayal of the venal Jackie stood head and shoulders above the rest of the cast) struck me as the only actor who solidly hit her mark. Hopefully, the performance I attended was simply an "off" night.

Performances of The House of Yes continue through April 29 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Up in Walnut Creek, Center Rep is presenting Philip Kan Gotanda's play, Sisters Matsumoto, on a unit set designed by Andrea Bechert with costumes by Maggie Yule. Set in 1945, the play premiered in 1999 as a co-production between the Seattle Repertory Theatre, San Jose Repertory Theatre, and Asian American Theater Company. Its plot focuses on the return of three sisters to their family's farm after having spent several years in a World War II Japanese-American internment camp. Gotanda reveals clues to his audience like a slowly blossoming flower. As he explains in his program note:
"The main inspiration for the play is my mother's life that mirrors closely the return of the Matsumoto sisters to their rural home in Stockton, California after being incarcerated for two years in one of America's World War II relocation camps. It also draws inspiration from Chekhov's works as well as a movie by Kon Ichikawa, The Makioka Sisters (based on a novel by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki). In my own work, I have always been drawn to the small intimacies we must negotiate in our daily lives, not necessarily the big spectacle or the heroic act, but those every day braveries and failures that cumulatively define a life lived."
Carina Lastimosa, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, and Melissa Locsin
in a scene from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by:

For the Matsumoto sisters, whatever joy can be found in returning to the family farm is short lived. The oldest sister, Grace (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), is married to the shy Hideo (Ogie Zulueta), a Kibei and former academic who is determined to start a newspaper although no one else in the family shows any enthusiasm for his idea. In addition to feeling trapped in a loveless marriage with little communication, Grace is determined to find a husband for her youngest sister, Rose, by hiring a local Japanese matchmaker.

Keiko Shimosato Carreiro as Grace in a scene 
from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by: 

The middle sister, Chiz (Melissa Locsin), is a pharmacist married to Bola (Tasi Alabastro), an outspoken and gregarious Hawaiian-born physician whose earthiness is diametrically opposed to the Japanese-American family's restrained behavior. While the couple have brought their new baby with them to Stockton, their two sons have stayed behind with Bola's family in Los Angeles until the three sisters can settle back into farm life.

Tasi Alabastro (Bola) and Melissa Locsin (Chiz) in a
scene from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by:

The youngest sister, Rose (Carina Lastimosa), was engaged to a man who was killed during the war. When one of her childhood playmates, Henry Sakai (Alexander M. Lydon), arrives with a gift for the Matsumoto family to show his appreciation for their beloved father (who, as a community leader, was very generous to the Sakai family during hard times), a spark of affection is easily rekindled even though all three of the Matsumoto sisters still refer to Henry by his childhood nickname: "ringworm boy."

Alexander M. Lydon as Henry Sakai in a scene
from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by:

Tenderly directed by Mina Morita, the family's woes start to multiply when Mr. Hersham (Colin Thomson) arrives as a dinner guest. A close friend of their deceased father, Hersham got caught up in a bad business deal which he now deeply regrets. The news he brings adds insult to the many injuries the Matsumoto family has suffered and immediately places their future in jeopardy.

Alexander M. Lydon, Colin Thomson, Tasi Alabastro, and
Keiko Shimosato Carreiro in a scene from Sisters Matsumoto
(Photo by:

Having grown up on the East Coast, most of the stories I heard about World War II concerned Jews who were murdered in Hitler's concentration camps. During my childhood and teenage years, we were taught nothing about the Japanese-American internment (which mostly affected people living in the Western United States). As Morita explains in her program note:
“Military intelligence determined that not a single act of espionage or sabotage had occurred within the Japanese-American community (Hawaii included), or was likely to occur. However, thousands of Americans lost their homes, jobs, and dignities, even after demonstrating unwavering patriotism at home and abroad in the form of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which included 4,500 Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) and became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. This unit liberated the concentration camp in Dachau even as their families continued to be incarcerated in the United States. None of us imagined that the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans (70,000 of whom were American citizens) in 1942 could be a precedent for growing sentiment about Muslim-Americans in 2017.”
Ogie Zulueta as Hideo in a scene from Sisters Matsumoto
(Photo by:
“This production is a courageous appeal to our greater human compassion towards understanding the plight of neighbors who are forced to suffer flagrant violations of their civil liberties. It is an act of remembering and acknowledging a history we must not forget and we must learn from. Our very own Declaration of Independence states that ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ These beliefs are the fabric of our national mythology. It is the promise that the Matsumoto family -- and so many of us -- depend upon. Let us uphold this promise, together. To all of us visitors (immigrants and those forced to immigrate to this land that belonged to a whole people before us), let us recall the American Dream that carries so many people here.” 
Keiko Shimosato Carreiro as Grace in a scene
from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by:

Gotanda's play demonstrates how, in a crisis, some people become hopeless and helpless while others use their wits to find their way out of a dire situation. Remembering that their father used to own the Europa Hotel on Stockton's main street, the Matsumoto family embarks on a plan that will allow Hideo to launch a bilingual Japanese/English newspaper, Bola to open a medical practice in the hotel's storefront, and Chiz to put her pharmaceutical degree to good use. Meanwhile, Grace and Rose can manage the hotel as the sisters rebuild their lives.

With sound design by Cliff Caruthers and lighting designed by Kurt Landisman, Center Rep's production was notable for a strange imbalance. Although Gotanda's script is crafted for the three sisters to dominate the evening, despite Keiko Shimosato Carreiro's brooding portrayal of Grace (who undergoes a surprisingly rebellious transformation), I felt that the strongest performances came from the always compelling Olgie Zulueta as Hideo and Alexander M. Lydon as Henry -- with Tasi Alabastro's Bola providing most of the play's comic relief.

Performances of Sisters Matsumoto continue through April 29th at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (click here for tickets).

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