Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Fugu by Steven G. Simon & Howard Teichman


L - R Marcel Licera, Scott Keiji Takeda, Ryan Moriarty, David Preston

By Joe Straw

Note: Fugu is a blowfish that the Japanese consider a delicacy.  Chefs train for years to master its preparations and must be licensed because of the fish’s toxicity.  The poison when ingested kills and there is no known antidote.

To plan and prepare Fugu is the way of Fugu.

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobi komu
Mizu no oto – Matsuo Basho

An old silent pond
Frog jumps into the water
Splash the water’s sound – narrator’s translation

I did not plan to learn Japanese this late in life; it became a necessity when my daughter enrolled in a Japanese language immersion program in grade school.    

Learning it I found that Japanese requires a different approach, of viewing and absorbing symbols that adhere to a different part of the brain – it’s almost like flipping on a light switch. Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji are elements of the language that I have not yet mastered, but hope to some day.  – Narrator

Looking back and remembering the haiku in the performance here is my link to what I imagined. (Your interpretation may vary.)

Serene moonlight glosses the surface of a pond.  A pond fairy (Kaz Matamura), dances on shallow, like a water spider, and blesses the blended noises of nature’s tranquility, north, south, east and west, unruffled and placid.  And, in the bitterest of contradictions, out jumps a frog (Matt Gottlieb), a noisy webbed disturbance that plays upon managed ringlets, creating clatter, without direction, a place to be, in and out, pushing water with webbed soaked feet, until finally there is a quiet unity.     

The West Coast Jewish Theatre presents a World Premiere production of Fugu by Steven G. Simon & Howard Teichman and directed by Howard Teichman at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles through March 19, 2017.

Fugu by Steven G. Simon and Howard Teichman is a masterful, timely work of art, blending life, love, and conflict in a compelling narrative highlighting Jews in 1941 Kobe, Japan.  Teichman’s directing is superb as he captures very intimate details of life, love, and happiness.  The play, wonderfully written in Japanese, German, Yiddish, and English is unforgettable in the way that it both highlights a time and captures the small but significant moments in the lives of human beings.  

Scott Keiji Takeda and Rosie Moss

Simply put, Fugu is a love story, a not so tangled web of refugees trying to connect in life, place and political circumstances, defying tradition in the simple act of love, and managing under the harshest of circumstances.

As the play begins, Colonel Nohiro Yasue (Ryan Moriarty), Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, is in preparations for a Shabbat dinner. He enlists his top aide Setsuzo Kotsuji (Scott Keiji Takeda) to help in the arrangements. Both are considered experts in the tradition having spent time in Palestine. Kotsuji quips the guests are coming only to complain. But Yasue will gladly accept their guests all in preparation to implement a plan.

True to form when he arrives, Dr. Avram Kaufman (Warren Davis), leader of the Jewish refugee community, complains about the sirens on Friday Nights and the Rabbi Shlomo Shapira (Peter Altschuler) says it interferers with their prayers. Complaints aside, the Rabbi is concerned about the upcoming meal being kosher.  Kotsuji assures them that all the preparations are adequate for the meal.

When they leave, we learn there is more to the meal than was divulged.  Captain Yosuke Matsuoka (Marcel Licera) speaks to the Colonel about his “Fugu” plan.  The Colonel, hoping to avoid bloodshed to the people of Japan sees the Fugu plan as his only hope to save the Japanese people. But the Captain sees the plan as ridiculous and a waste of time.

Resistance to the plan takes many forms, not just from fellow countrymen and the Jewish refugees, but also from German Colonel Josef Meisinger (David Preston), a Nazi who wants to rid Japan of the Jews residing there. He is a shadow bringing darkness to an area that desperately needs light.

Also, to add diversion to the plan is an unexpected love story between aide Setsuzo Kotsuji and the very lovely daughter of Dr. Avran Kaufman, Sarah Kaufman (Rosie Moss).

At the heart of Steven G. Simon and Howard Teichman play is a love story – one that rings true to the core.  But the other side of the coin is “Fugu,” a way out that has to be meticulously planned and then implemented.   But the plan, presented on stage, is comical, and one that most of the characters believe is downright absurd; no one believes it will work, not even the audience that is gathered for a town meeting. The plan might be better left off stage, leaving us with only the end results rather than the details; this will trim the play, and the ending will be both ambiguous and mysterious. In Japanese culture, beauty lies in the things that are left unsaid and I believe that holds true for the plan.  That aside, there are a wonderful thing going on, in particular the moments when the languages shift, from German to English, from Japanese to English, etc., similar in the way Stanley Kramer does it in the film Judgment at Nuremberg. This makes for a very fine theatrical outing.

Teichman, the director, provides us with brilliant flashes of humanity that defines characters in their predicament. It is Teichman’s work of art both as a writer and a director that brings forth a play that everyone should see just to place it in its historical context and then to compare that to our present day life and watching history repeating itself.     That said, not everything works to perfection, moments and relationships need tweaking and definition.  The relationship of the Colonel and the Captain misses, lacks conviction, and fails to bring forth an intimacy of their historical past.  And it is a past when the roles, or rank, were reversed.  This gives the Captain a greater choice, a window of opportunity in achieving his objective, and creating a grander physical life on stage.

Kaz Matamura and Matt Gottlieb

Kaz Matamura gives a much-needed authenticity to the play, the language, the Japanese dance and the setting for Shabbat. Her Japanese is wonderful.

Matt Gottlieb gives a grand performance as Max Kaminsky, someone who doubts first and then speaks the truth.  He is a man that gets to the point quickly because he understands their time in Japan hangs in the balance. There is an extreme reality in Gottlieb’s performance, in his manner, and in the power of his voice. His craft is exceptional.

Ryan Moriarty plays Colonel Nohiro Yasue, the catalyst that sets the plan in motion.  But, where are the orders coming from? And, what pushes the Colonel to push this preposterous plan onto his Jewish counterparts? Yasue would work better with a tempered manner, not one that flies off the handle especially with his guests.  Insulting your guests for the sake of expediency is not the Japanese way.  Anger should not guide the character, proficiency in thought and deed should.  If time is an issue, he is fighting against the clock. If outside forces are an issue, we should see that in his manner. This character has a rich history that was not brought to the table on this night; more of that life could be added. Moriarty seems a little uneasy with the languages; his vocal requirements need conviction that would force the others to follow.  That said, Moriarty has a terrific presence on stage and is certain to get better with a few more performances under his belt.

Scott Keiji Takeda is excellent as Setsuzo Kotsuji, an emissary of sorts that helps in the preparation of the Shabbat.  Kotsuji says he speaks five languages—in addition to Japanese, he speaks German, English, and Yiddish. The manner in which Takeda speaks, speaks volumes of this craft and of the character. Rarely do you see an actor take command of the stage but Takeda is strong in his ability to create a time and a place, and he does this so exquisitely.  His work was terrific the last time I saw him but now his growth is exponential.

Warren Davis as Dr. Avram Kaufman had some very grand moments. Scared out of his wits of receiving the plan from his Japanese friends, trying to keep his daughter in line, and then revealing the plans to the his community is more than he can handle. Kaufman is caught in a trap, from which he is unable to get out. If protecting his people is his ultimate objective, then he must be stronger in the way he deals with the other conflicts that plagues his life. He must be wise, forceful, and crafty and move in the direction of his own choosing.  A stronger objective will only help his character.     

Peter Altschuler has some very funny moments as Rabbi Shlomo Shapira, a wise and noble man who seems to be the voice of reason.

Marcel Licera is Captain Yosuke Matsuoka is a Japanese soldier who has very little in common with his colonel. This role is tricky in that his objective is not very clear and needs definition. Matsuoka appears to be a soldier who has lost favor (certainly, it’s true with the colonel) but his attempts to regain a foothold to the power he once had is limited and weak. The successful path to this character is one who brings the weight and the power of the military into the room with him.  One needs to see who is pushing his buttons, the details of his own plan, and highlighted by a stronger objective.  We see Matsuoka’s faults and that is good work, but the manner in which Licera plays a Japanese soldier requires a stronger conviction.   

David Preston is very convincing as Colonel Josef Meisinger, a Nazi who comes to Kobe, Japan to spread the word of the Third Reich.  Well, there is more to it than that. He will do anything to convince the Japan military leaders to give up those that are hiding from him. Meisinger is hiding himself for crimes against humanity.  Preston’s work is exceptional and he brings a dark presence to the man who has been called in real life “The Butcher of Warsaw”.  Preston presents a powerful image on stage.

L - R Rosie Moss and Bryna Weiss

Rosie Moss is wonderful as Sarah Kaufman, a young lady that loves her father, but needs to find other interests before her time runs out. Moss plays daughter, friend, and lover with equal simplicity.  Her facial expressions light the stage and her craft is remarkable.

Bryna Weiss is Mrs. Dovitch who doesn’t appear until the second act.  Sometimes one catches exceptional work and this is true with her performance, which does not ring a false note. Weiss brings a lot of character work to Mrs. Dovitch; the manner in which she both gives and receives is funny, poignant, and caring.

Set Designer, Kurtis Bedford has created a very functional set of movable walls that reveal and hide the plan.  The set is similar to what one will find in a Japanese home, and a temple.   

Shon Le Blanc, Costume Designer, highlights the players in time and place with costumes that set a dramatic tone. It would be interesting to know, if a lesson taught came with the costume, because an actor has to fill the costume rather than just wear it.

The understudy for Kiori is Akiko Katagiri, for Setsuzo Kotsuji is Mark Labella, and for Mrs. Dovitch is Caroline Westheimer.  They did not perform the night I was there.

Other crewmembers that planned in the creation of a night of theatre are as follow:

Pricilla Miranda – Stage Manager
Ellen Monocroussos – Lighting Designer
Bill Froggatt – Sound & Presentation Designer
Hai Cohen – Choreographer (Chasidic)
Kaz Matamura – Choreographer (Japanese)
Jessica Bennett – Fight Choreographer
Phil Sokoloff – Publicity
Raul Clayton Staggs – Casting Director
Michael Lamont - Photographer

Run! Run! And take someone who is on top of current events.  You’ll have much to talk about on your way home about the similarities of the play and our current political dilemma.  
RESERVATIONS: 323-821-2449.
ONLINE TICKETING: www.wcjt.org

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