Sunday, March 13, 2016

Theatreworks: tokyo fish story

Left to right: Francis Jue, Linden Tailor, James Seol. Photo courtesy Kevin Berne and Theatreworks.

Very few activities reflect the human spirit and its desire for transcendence like the precision and craft of cuisine. In particular, the culture built around sushi and its construction, as revealed to broader America in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is slow, grueling, and demanding of perfection. Kimber Lee’s tokyo fish story, directed at Theatreworks by Kirsten Brandt, uses both character interactions and broader structure to contrast the art of sushi with the demands of the real world.

In a way, tokyo fish story is two plays at once: The poetic saga of sushi master Koji (Francis Jue), as his restaurant weathers a changing Japan, and the realist drama of his son Takashi (James Seol), who quashes his own culinary innovations out of fealty to his father. The merger of the two serves not only as a multifaceted look at a complex family relationship, but gives Koji the vulnerability he needs to become more than just a strict father.

Seol’s Takashi is the standout performance in the Theatreworks production. Though second apprentice Nobu (Linden Tailor) makes fun of him for being almost as uptight as Koji, in reality Takashi masks the pain of not knowing whether his father will ever see him as an equal. Takashi is a different person to every character in the play, and Seol portrays him with the beautiful emotional delicacy required for the audience to understand this.

Nobu’s role is meant to push Takashi into action and to provide a dose of levity. A lot of plays have similar “jester” characters, many of whom are loud and into pop culture (Star Wars in this case). Nobu serves this role while genuinely caring about his job and his mentor. While Tailor never tones down his intensity, he still finds ways to show his dedication to his work.

Wilson Chin’s set flips the conventions of the proscenium theatre on its head to meet the varying needs of the production. Normally, the stage is used to create a two-dimensional effect like a television screen, but here, the multi-tiered wooden framing and use of suspended sculpture create a theatre space that can be unified or split into narrow zones as the direction demands. This creates room for the actors to maneuver, but still feels cramped and uncomfortable like a tiny kitchen.

tokyo fish story at Theatreworks is a look into a life profoundly different from our own, where a three-decade apprenticeship is not unexpected, and one can not notice a neighbor has been gone for two years. It’s a play that observes multiple lives traveling at different speeds, and how someone “irrelevant” can still be incredibly important. Rather than critiquing the pace of the current generation, Lee is simply sitting at the counter and asking us questions about how things will change.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016 Season

Each year, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, located in scenic Ashland, Oregon, produces 11 plays in repertory. About half of them are the works of Shakespeare, with the rest a mixture of contemporary plays, older musicals, and shows by classic playwrights.

Ashland itself is a wonderful place for a vacation. A variety of quality restaurants with fresh ingredients, lots of nearby trails and parks, and a thriving visual arts scene make the town a favorite destination.

Here are some of the most exciting plays of OSF’s 2016 season:

Twelfth Night (dir. Christopher Liam Moore)

Runs February 19 through October 30

While OSF’s previous version of this play was set in a color-saturated Elizabethan England, this year’s production is based on glamorous 1930’s Hollywood musicals. Because of the play’s strong themes of music and love, as well as the nicely wrapped-up ending where the villain gets his due, it feels like a great fit.

Director Christopher Liam Moore has worked mostly on contemporary plays during his 6-year career at OSF, but he also directed the semi-modern adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2013.

The River Bride (by Marisela TreviƱo Orta, dir. Laurie Woolery)

Runs February 21 through July 7

The River Bride, which had several productions around the West Coast prior to this performance, is a mystical, dreamlike story-play based partially on the Amazonian myth of dolphins taking human form to seduce women. Historically, OSF’s plays based on mythology, such as 2013’s White Snake, have been extremely successful, and I look forward to seeing how they present this one.

Great Expectations (Adaptation by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper, dir. Penny Metropulos)

Runs February 20 through October 30

This new adaptation of Great Expectations captures the over-the-top characters and dramatic twists of fate that one would expect from one of Dickens' greatest novels. Stage versions of Dickens stories (excepting A Christmas Carol) are surprisingly rare, so it is a treat to see such a quality theatrical company take on the challenge.

Hamlet (dir. Lisa Peterson)

Runs June 7 through October 14

Hardly anything is more exciting than a production of Hamlet by one of the greatest Shakespeare repertories in the country. This version, directed by guest artist Lisa Peterson, emphasizes the themes of madness and doubt present in the play: Is Hamlet avenging the murder of a noble king, or killing an innocent man in a haze of grief?

While the 2010 production cast Dan Donohue in the titular role, this year’s Hamlet is played by Danforth Comins, most notable for his incredible portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in 2013’s A Streetcar Named Desire. It will be exciting to see what he brings to the part.

The Wiz (Book by William F. Brown, music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, dir. Robert O’Hara)

Runs June 8 through October 15

This year, OSF’s recent tradition of directing classic 20th-century musicals in fascinating ways arrives at the all-Black adaptation of The Wizard of Oz – the one that took audiences by storm in 1974. Director Robert O’Hara, who also wrote the play Insurrection: Holding History, frequently focuses on the conflicts between identity and the past in his work, and I look forward to what messages he will add to and discover within The Wiz. 

The Winter’s Tale (dir. Desdemona Chiang)

Runs June 9 through October 16

Shakespeare’s rarely performed tragicomedy, featuring magic, miracles, and the most famous bear-related stage direction of all time, arrives at the Elizabethan Theatre this year. For this production, director Desdemona Chiang has adapted the play across multiple times, setting it simultaneously in dynastic China and America’s West in the 19th Century. One of the great benefits of large Shakespeare festivals like OSF is their willingness to take risks with uncommon works, and a production of The Winter’s Tale is a rare treat.