Teahouse of the August Moon
Review by dieFliedermaus
Director: Mike Rademaekers
Rating: Super Star Destroyer
Not many people know that Los Angeles has a tradition of live stage productions, but the area called "NoHo" (North Hollywood) is a dowdy neighborhood punctuated with small theaters that house productions and workshops. The tradition is for actors and staff to contribute their skills for free in exchange for experience. The tickets are cheap (a mere $15 for this show), and when it's good, the plays have the warmth of the Andy Rooney-style "let's put on a show" exuberance and the high polish that only professionals having fun can add.
Teahouse of the August Moon has great pedigree: Concept and novel by actor and former marine Vern Sneider, Pulitzer Prize-winning book by John Patrick, winner of the N.Y. Drama Critics' Award, The Donaldson Award, The Theatre Club Award, The Aegis Theatre Club Award, The American Theatre Wing's Antointette Perry (Tony) Award as a long-running Broadway play, and brilliant movie starring Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford. And yet, it's largely forgotten (not even yet available on DVD!), and when it is noticed, it commonly and unjustifiably gets buried under politically correct reverse-racism craptalk. That's too bad, because it's a sharp, funny, surprising comedy, very well written and very relevant to just about any situation. (Hint: It's not really about "Asians"!!!)
The production at the Secret Rose Theatre in NoHo was regularly sold out, and why not? We were warned by the director that the first act was 90 minutes long, and it whizzed by. The acting was superb, the direction tight and everyone was hilarious -- but not in the belly-laughs sense. This is a thoughtful, deep play with subtle things that were just plain funny in a more clever way, and this production did it justice.
Ah, how I wish I could have seen it again! The cast was split, with roles being shared, depending which day(s) you were there. I would have liked to have watched the "B" cast as well, but feel lucky to have caught the "A"s.
Costuming, sets, staging -- it was all perfect. Hoashi's performance as the "rogue" native interpreter Sakini seemed like it was built for him. Even Paul Dennington's toes acted the part of Captain Fisby well. It was very funny to watch his feet, of all things, conveying his tension when caught squandering military funds for the good of the village of Tobiki on Okinawa. He was meant to execute "Plan B" -- American "education" of the principals of democracy to the natives, with everything plotted out in meticulous detail and reported and tracked bi-weekly. Somehow, Sakini and the Tobikiites convince Captain Fisby they don't need a Pentagon-shaped school (for there are no children to teach!), but instead they need a teahouse -- a place for the top-class geisha Lotus Blossom (a gift from the Tobikiites to Fisby upon his arrival) to work and teach, and for the villagers to feel proud. But where will the villagers get money to spend at this luxury teahouse? Why, they do it peddling sweet potato brandy -- strictly under the table, by the gallon -- to PXs and US military commissaries all over Japan, of course!
Sounds oddly immoral, doesn't it? Nothing is really as it appears in this play, and things change subtly and/or suddenly. Even though it's ostensibly about the occupation of Okinawa post WWII, it's also about hope, self-discovery, redemption, and even love. Preconceived notions are guaranteed to bite you in the butt, and cleverness and experience are rewarded. It's also really, really funny! This book pre-dates M.A.S.H., which obviously was influenced by it. Quite honestly, this story is better (though everyone I know loves the movie M.A.S.H., not to be confused with the long-running television series!).
Alas, the run for this production was over on January 19, even though it was rumored that cast and audience have asked that it be extended. Let this be a lesson -- go support your local theater and watch more plays! Some will stink, for sure. But some will be original, or fresh, or back from the dead. It'll be worth it! (And if you come across any plays or movies starring this great cast, you must go see it at once!)