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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
A Distant Shore
By Laura Hitchcock
In A Distant Shore, premiering at The Kirk Douglas Theatre, he addresses the ways in which the two cultures feed on each other with envy, destruction and passion in a ceaseless struggle for control, bewildered by obsession from first to last. He does this with careful attention to detail, resulting in some didacticsm, but presented by such a riveting cast, you'll hold still for it.
Director Robert Egan takes his time with Act One which feels appropriate. Set in a mythical Southeast Asian country, that first act falls into the slower rhythm of the 1920s when Patricia, a distraught Englishwoman, asks Zul, a native man, if a horse passed by to the big house at the end of the road. He tells her many horses have passed by but she's interested in only one -- the horse carrying her husband Alan, the Resident Commissioner, to the bedroom of the beautiful Salmah, who is betrothed to Zul. Although Patricia and Zul are attracted to each other, her pregnancy and his engagement restrain them. Zul's marriage is also an upwardly mobile step for him the rise up that ladder impelled by his mother, Wardina, who sees this as a way out of poverty. Alan and Salmah's passion, inspired by Lorca's Blood Wedding ends Act One ambiguously but powerfully steps short of the altar.
In Act Two, 80 years later, Wardina is still bitter about the upwardly mobile thing. The revolution, in which she joined with her lover Sulaiman (Salmah's aristocratic father in Act One), has failed, landing her in prison. He escaped to the USA and comes back determined to improve his people's lot by the materialism that has enriched him. He's engaged to Patricia, a corporate executive, who shares his ideals. Through the eyes of Wardina, now the hotel maid he finds cleaning his room, Sulaiman sees the futility and self-serving aspect of his change. Alan, now an investigative journalist, is on a collision course with Salmah, who is now in government intelligence. The second act is sharper dramatically, though could be sharper yet with fewer, more specfic words.
Reincarnation is used vividly in both characters and set. Myung Hee Cho, who also designed the exquisite costumes, created the set of stunning pillars which evoke the haunting natural beauty of rubber trees in Act One. In Act Two, they metamorphose into glittering skyscrapers.
Zul, given exotic charm by Eric D. Steinberg, plays Wardina's graceful, diffident son in Act One, and a homosexual dancer in Act Two. She is manipulated by others every time.
Patricia, the distressed housewife and later a poet in Act One, is the well-meaning corporate executive in Act Two. She brings a riveting charisma to two roles that could be stodgy. Tamlyn Tomita's roles have the most range and she takes advantage of every aspect. In Act One.she plays Salmeh, the Commissioner's translator who reads D. H. Lawrence and wins his heart, and in Act Two she confronts Alan, now an investigative journalist, with a different kind of passion. Her passion is for freedom both times, but in Act One, it's personal and in Act Two, it's patriotic.
Daniel Blinkoff is keenly credible as Alan who believes his Western values can improve the natives' lot, both as the British Resident Commissioner in Act One and an investigative journalist in Act II. Nelson Mashita brings weight to Sulaiman, the confident affluent father of Salmah in Act One and the one-time radical revolutionary, now a writer in Act Two; in both Acts, he is remote from the struggles of the people. Beautiful Esther K. Chae, a butterfly-like maid in Act One, is a tragic transsexual in Act Two, delightful in a thinly written part that needs more motivation.
But character is not what Chay Yew is really about here. He's after bigger things and he succeeds on most of the canvas he's painted with the colors and fascination the Orient holds for the West, the mutual greed the two cultures have for each other and the process of amalgamation that's lumpy, uncertain but inevitable, weaving a tapestry like no other.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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