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|A CurtainUp Review
Virtue: Senpo Sugihara
Sugihara represents one of those rare bright pages in a dark chapter of Twentieth Century history. The bright page was written by Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania in 1940 who saved the lives of more than 6,000 Jews by hand signing more than 1,600 visas (in 28 days time). Sugihara's heroism went unappreciated by his government which, on the verge of allying itself with Nazi Germany, transferred him to a post in Berlin. To compound this misjudgment (theirs, not his) they continued to treat him as someone disloyal to the homeland.
In 1991 -- on the verge of sending a mission to establish diplomatic ties with the newly independent Lithuania which had just renamed a street outside the Japanese consulate in Sugihara's honor -- conveniently decided to redress this injustice by issuing an official apology to his family. It came to late for the brave diplomat who died in 1986. Fortunately he did have some recognition for his actions from the Israel government which officially acknowledges his efforts in 1972 and in 1985 honored him with the Righteous Among Nations Award.
What Sugihara's countrymen acknowledged grudgingly, Japanese playwright Koichi Hiraishi has honored eloquently with Virtue: Senpo Sugihara. The play, which has been performed internationally, premiered in Tokyo in 1992 in Tokyo to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Gekidan Dora Theatrical Company, founded by Suzuki Mizuho and Hayakawa Shoji "to democratically express...thoughts on peace, love and humanity." (It still plays at Tokyo's Asahi Seimei Theatre). Now American audiences have an opportunity to see this moving story of human decency at the Sylvia & Danny Kaye Playhouse, albeit for just one week.
Despite the fact that the Kaye Playhouse is not an ideal venue for a straight drama and simultaneous translation devices tend to interfere with losing oneself in a play, Virtue is a moving and powerful theatrical experience that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. The translation mechanism which I found intrusive and annoying during the Moscow Sovremennik Theatre Company's recent production of The Cherry Orchard, (see link at end) were much less so here since the translator did not try to synchronize his words with the actors and limited himself to summary translation (much like the titles in a foreign film). More than anything, I was taken with the play's power. Having expected Virtue to be a documentary, I found myself instead caught up in an engaging story of three families--the diplomat and his wife and aides; and two of the thousands of desperate refugee families whose plight depended on his "virtue." Those who've seen the current Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank (see link below) will find that seeing both plays will enhance the experience of each. Most of the excellent 19-member cast has been with the production through its many performances. The actors portraying the refugees and soon make you forget that they are Japanese and not Jewish. The naturalistic setting Sets: Yoshiaki Sono's naturalistic setting, Mayumi Ryoji costumes and Genichiro Yokota's lighting serve the production well, as does the original music by Eiryu Ko.
The actor who plays a servant in the young ambassador's house makes it clear that Sugihara, unlike Oscar Schindler, was always the sort of man who did the right thing. He recalls how when this man was at a low ebb in his life, a Chinese vagrant "lower than animals to most Japanese" lying in an opium stupor outside Sugihara's house. "He (Sugihara could have stepped over me." But as he didn't step over this man, neither did he let the danger to his career and the fact keep him from saving the lives of his fellow human beings.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF PLAYS MENTIONED HERE:
The Cherry Orchard,
The Diary of Anne Frank