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A CurtainUp Review
Sake With the Haiku Geisha

By Julia Furay

On a darkened stage
Heartbeats race and Players play
West collides with East

---the Haiku Geisha

Angela Lin  in Haiku Geisha
Angela Lin in Haiku Geisha
(Photo: David Gochfeld)
The clash of cultures are what drive the many stories of Sake with the Haiku Geisha, the new play by Randall David Cook at the Perry Street Theater. It's the endlessly dramatic, often retold story of East Meets West. This time around, it's the experiences of three Westerners who go to teach English in Japan, and the locals they encounter.

Cook has written an intriguing play that dramatizes cultural fusion and collision in generally interesting and rewarding ways. He does so not only through the characters' actions and struggles, but also through the structure and presentation of the piece itself.

The dialogue, characterization, humor and delivery are much as they would be in a typical Western piece of drama, but the structure is that of a Noh play with five acts and a different protagonist in each. There are a great many additional Japanese influences, in both Cook's script and director Alex Lippard's limpid production -- most notably, the Haiku, an ever-present Geisha (Angela Lin), supplies her punchy, poetic insights throughout the drama. The bicultural presentation isn't really the emphasis here. The focus is on the characters and their stories.

All five acts feature a different main character reacting to a personal encounter with globalization. Some of these clashes are internal, some involve miscommunications and some are real conflicts. It's not surprising that some of the stories are more interesting and original than the others.

Three out of the five stories presented are those of our Western expats. They've signed up to teach in a tiny Japanese town for two years, and all three have a tough time adjusting. Charlotte (Emma Bowers), a prim British miss, writes to her slightly senile granny to stave off loneliness and culture shock. Parker (Jeremy Hollingworth), a Southern Baptist, has difficulty finding another openly gay man in the repressed Japanese village. Free spirited Canadian Brianna (Fiona Gallagher) tries to forget her personal tragedy while paradoxically encouraging the Japanese to embrace their own history.

The other two stories belong to Japanese characters. Both involve Western violation of Japan. The local school principal Mr. Hashimoto (David Shih) tells of the Hiroshima bomb after which the Haiku Geisha herself tells a Madame Butterfly-esque story of seduction and betrayal. The men in the stories fare better than the women because they get more complex development and conflict.

Hashimoto's story, in particular, is a beautiful fusion of the best of Western and Eastern drama. The Hiroshima story could come off as an out-of-place, manipulative tearjerker, but it packs a climactic punch, thanks to the pungent writing, elegant staging and, most of all, Shih's dignified, restrained performance. It's intense enough that it actually comes as a surprise that the play doesn't end with this story.

The last word goes to the Haiku Geisha. Despite Lin's ability to transform instantly from the coy, flirty Geisha to a shy office worker, her story doesn't satisfy. To begin with, it would have to be a really sharp, compelling piece to keep the audience involved after the intensity of Hashimoto's story. Because this piece is of the softer, sadder variety, so that rather than acting as an appropriate climax and coda to the evening, it feels like an afterthought. What's more, the seduction and betrayal story is o so familiar that by the time of her inevitable heartbreak, the play really begins to wear out its welcome.

Parker's segment feels new, its strength coming from the real awkwardness and humor in his attempt to find a boyfriend - or at the very least, acceptance in the Japanese village. The Japanese response to his homosexuality, and their ultimate solution to his problem,f has great moments of cultural confusion and hilarity and makes for some of the play's most enjoyable moments.

Charlotte's story which focuses mostly on her relationship with her granny back in England is also funny and touching a nd Bowers portrays her character with a sweet, yet purposeful air. However the setup - Charlotte and her grandmother basically just read out their letters to each other -- is staid and without much theatricality or vitality to the storyline. What keeps boredom at bay is the gentle humor between the two letter writers. Brianna's piece is even funnier (with a particularly hilarious sex scene). Gallagher's breathless, harried portrayal brings out the comedy brilliantly, but when we're meant to start taking her more seriously, it isn't quite believable.

So why does the production succeed despite its flaws? To begin with, the five-act structure is forgiving. None of the stories, weak or strong, lasts too long before we're on to another cultural collision. The performances are generally strong despite some horrid fake accents. In particular, Shih and Sala Iwamatsu (as a relentlessly open-minded teacher, among other things) shine in their roles and make the play fun to watch.

Cook's use of humor, coupled with Lippard's staging, emphasizes the lighthearted spirit of adventure that drives the characters. And of course, there are all those lovely haikus which punctuate the action. All in all, an auspicious inaugural production from the Gotham Stage Company.

By Randall David Cook
Directed by Alex Lippard

Cast: David Shuh, Emma Bowers, Fiona Gallagher, Jeremy Hollingworth, Angela Lin, Sala Iwamatsu, Ikuma Isaac
Set Design: David Newell
Costume Design: Charlene Alexis Gross
Lighting Design: Lucas Benjaminh Krech
Sound Design and Original Composition: Allison Leyton-Brown

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Perry Street Theater, 31 Perry Street, 212-868-4444
Mondays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm
From 2/24/06 to 4/08/06
Tickets: $55
Reviewed by Julia Furay based on February 28 performance
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