Friday, December 13, 2002

In the modern Kyogen work, "The Washing River," a henpecked husband (Chihiro Hosono, left) is pushed to dupe his overbearing wife (Danel Verdugo).

Cultural gap dulls
show’s laughter

"Kyogen: Laughter for All Time": Repeats 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, and 2 p.m. Sunday at the University of Hawaii-Manoa Kennedy Theatre Mainstage. Tickets $12 general; $10 for seniors, military, UH faculty and staff; $8 for non-UH students; $3 for UH students with fall ID. Call 956-7655. A pre-show discussion of kyogen theater will take place an hour before tomorrow's performance.

Review by John Berger

Form prevails over comic content in Kennedy Theatre's ambitious cross-cultural Mainstage production of "Kyogen: Laughter for All Time."

Director-translator Julie Iezzi offers Honolulu an entertaining introduction to a form of Japanese theater said to be less formal and stylized than noh or kabuki. Perhaps something is lost in the translation, but the actors' movements and their sing-song English-spoken-as-if-it-was-Japanese delivery seemed stylized on opening night.

Each of the three short stories was darker than the one before it. The second two leave questions for local audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture.

The first story is the most accessible. "Tied to a Pole" follows the antics of two scheming servants trying to get into their master's sake cellar. Their problem is that Jiro Kaja (Cristian Ellauri) has his arms tied to a long pole, scarecrow style, and Taro Kaja (Chi Ho Law) has his hands tied behind his back. Jiro Kaja can move his hands sufficiently to open the cellar door and decant sake into a bowl, but the only way he can get a drink is if Taro Kaja holds the bowl for him. Conversely, Taro Kaja can't get at the sake without Jiro Kaja's help.

The physical comedy created by the two in portraying the increasingly inebriated sake-sippers is the clearest comic material in the show. D. Omar Willams adds to the interplay as the clever master who plays a trick or two on the drunks.

The second story, "The Snail," is a one-joke sketch in which a dimwitted servant (Carolyn Sara Covalt) mistakes a priest (Colleen Lanki) for a snail, and the priest goes along with the ruse for reasons that are never revealed. Eventually, the servant's master (Jennifer Goodlander) arrives and the story ends oddly. To say more would spoil the surprise.

"The Washing River," adapted by director-translator Iezzi and cast members, is the longest and darkest of all. A henpecked husband (Megan Evans), who toils dawn to dusk as the servant of his abusive wife (Hui-Mei Chang) and mother-in-law (Eunsook Kim), finally asks his tormentors to write down all his chores so that he won't forget them. He then has the two women confirm that everything he is required to do is on the list. They do.

So when wifey "accidentally" falls in the river, he checks the list with agonizing slowness and informs his desperate mother-in-law that pulling his wife out of the river isn't on the list. Sorry about that!

Only after his mother-in-law agrees to release him from servitude does the husband pull his wife out of the freezing water -- and she promptly starts abusing him again.

Kim gave a crowd-pleasing performance as the feisty, physically challenged mother-in-law, and Chang played out the wife's near drowning in great comic style as well. (Iezzi double-cast all the roles except Kim as the mother-in-law. This cast returns tomorrow and Sunday.)

Perhaps it's a mistake to expect kyogen's humor to be universal. Taken simply as theater, the actors' stylized performances entertain. Ellauri and Law as the drunken servants, Covalt as the good-natured gullible snail hunter, and Evans as the abused husband forced to wash foul-smelling clothes in a freezing river are particularly expressive. And, while it's insensitive to find humor in the physically challenged, Kim brought down the house on opening night.

The costumes are beautiful, Kelly Berry's minimalist set with its giant bonsai pine is elegant in its simplicity, and James M. Davenport adds to the impact of Kim's comic performance with a striking mask.

"Kyogen: Laughter for All Time" is worth seeing as an introduction to Japanese theater in translation, but it certainly isn't all laughs.

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