Thursday, May 4, 2017

1 (2017-2018): Review: PACIFIC OVERTURES (seen May 3, 2017)

If you’re puzzled about the four kanji (Chinese characters used in writing Japanese) heading this review, so was I as I stared at them overlooking the set of John Doyle’s remarkably simplified revival of Pacific Overtures. That, of course, is the 1976 John Weidman (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) musical now playing at the CSC.

George Takei. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although I read Japanese and knew that the characters were, respectively, for “bright, light,” “mirror,” “stop, halt,” and “water,” I struggled to make sense of their confluence in what is pronounced meikyō shisui until I checked my IPad Japanese dictionary to discover it’s a martial arts aphorism (used mainly in kendō) meaning “clear and serene (as a polished mirror and still water),” “soul mirror, deadly water,” “clear mind reflects like a quiet water,” among other renderings.

The words are written high up on one of two vertical strips that extend to the ceiling from one end of a long platform dividing the space in two, much as if a roll of butcher paper had been spread out and, when there was no more room, split in two (for entrances and exits) and raised up high. (For some reason, designer David L. Arsenault is credited for “associate scenic design.”)  Numerous moments arise when actors look up meaningfully at the words, which even get spotlighted, but you won't find an explanation in the text or program.

This is only one of many choices that make me wonder just how much audiences at this 90-minute revival are grasping of the play’s treatment of mid-19th-century Japanese history. Pacific Overtures is about the opening of Japan to the West in 1853, and its aftermath, following Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s anchoring of four American warships off the coast of Uruga. Using gunboat diplomacy, he demanded an end to the nation’s nearly 230-years-old policy of seclusion (sakoku) from the world (except, mainly, for a small Dutch outpost at Nagasaki).

At a stretch, one might interpret “Meikyō Shisui” as an ironic reflection of Japan’s ability to turn the West’s cultural invasion against it, which increasingly becomes manifest as the action moves forward and Japan Westernizes with amazing rapidity. Perhaps, though, a better slogan would have been “Sonnō Jōi” (Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarians). This phrase, erroneously referred to in the script as “Restore the Emperor and Expel the Barbarians,” was at the heart of the internal conflict that roiled Japanese politics for years in the wake of Perry’s visit, and of others who followed.
Steven Eng, Megan Masako Haley, Ann Harada. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It’s no fault of this production that Pacific Overtures, allegedly representing the Japanese point of view regarding the events depicted, contains historical distortions and misstatements. Since book writer John Weidman studied East Asian history at Yale, one wonders if these errors were intentional, designed mainly to increase the dramatic effect, à la the far more historically inaccurate The King and I.

Just consider the notion with which the show begins, presenting 1853 Japan as a peaceful, quiet, island nation, happily harvesting rice and painting lovely screens while the rest of the world is in turmoil, only for the hairy, hook-nosed Americans to barge in and rape their little paradise. In fact, Japan itself was in turmoil, the shogunate was starting to crack, and there previously had been multiple attempts by foreign powers to enter the country. And, to point to just one significant factual error, one might ask why the script calls Abe Masahiro (Thom Sesma), a major character, the 13th shogun, when he was actually not the shogun but a councilor? (The 13th shogun was Tokugawa Iesada.)

When Pacific Overtures was originally produced, at the Winter Garden, it was ballyhooed for its incorporation of kabuki techniques. I even participated in a Japan Society panel disputing the way these methods had been employed. Nonetheless, that production was quite spectacular, with a gorgeous set and vibrant Japanese costuming and wigs; men played women’s roles, as in kabuki, and there was even a hanamichi runway through the auditorium, although inappropriately used.
Thom Sesma, Megan Masako Haley, George Takei, Marc Oka. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It’s been said that one reason Pacific Overtures is the least revived Sondheim musical is its difficult production requirements, but John Doyle, whose niche is finding ways to strip elaborate shows down to their barest needs, has found a way to do so that may surprise fans of the show. 

Instead of elaborate sets he’s substituted the long, narrow platform I described earlier, one that, essentially, is nothing but a hanamichi, although some action happens along its sides and in the aisles. And some numbers have been eliminated, “Chrysanthemum Tea,” “March to the Treaty House,” and, most regrettably, “Lion Dance,” in which a top-hatted, star-spangled Uncle Sam dances in kabuki makeup and a long, white shishi wig.

Aside from her delightfully innovative use of bolts of cloth with Hokusai-like wave patterns that actors toss over their shoulders to replicate the samurai look of long, trailing trousers and wing-like vests, Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes entirely abandon kimonos in favor of a rehearsal look, with present-day clothing in modest colors. The men—apart from the Reciter (a solid George Takei), who wears a suit and tie—are in slacks and shirts, the women in skirts and tops, the only concession to Japanese wear being everyone’s white tabi socks.

The original production had over 30 actors but only 10 (eight men and two women) are used to play the show’s many roles at the CSC, with men sometimes playing women and vice-versa. They form an excellent ensemble, singing Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics with clarity and feeling, and bringing life to their generally two-dimensional characters. Keeping their hands on their upper thighs in formal fashion, they use many conventional Japanese movements, including walking with an approximation of the sliding step associated with traditional Japanese theatre and dance.
Kelvin Moon Loh, Austin Ku, George Takei, Thom Sesma, Marc Oka. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s an austerity to Doyle’s minimalism, which uses barely any props, that more closely suggests noh than kabuki. In such a physically pared down environment Jane Shaw’s exquisite lighting makes the most of every opportunity. 

Doyle creates lots of imaginative business, such as the choreographically precise snapping open and shut of fans by the men playing girl prostitutes in “Welcome to Kanagawa,” which also highlights the delightful Ann Harada's talents as Madam. Even cleverer is the use of national flags by the foreign admirals in “Please Hello,” perhaps the most outstanding number; Kelvin Moon Loh is a comic standout as the Russian admiral ("don't touch the coat!"). Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated Sondheim's difficult score for the first production, has redone it wonderfully for this revival’s nine-member orchestra.
Megan Masako Haley, George Takei. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Doyle’s production tears away so many visual elements that it endangers clear comprehension of the book’s many transitions in time and place. Following the story without clear markers of character and location puts the onus on the music and lyrics, which, however well-done, are not a sufficient substitute for narrative clarity, especially with such a history-filled, sketchy, episodic script.

Sondheim fans who know the material will appreciate Doyle’s work—the reception was unusually warm when I went—but I’m not so sure about newcomers. I advise them, then, to see it by first clearing their minds of all distractions and evil thoughts; in other words, meikyō shisui.


Classic Stage Company (CSC)
136 E. 13th St., NYC
Through June 18