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Borrowed Thunder 

Philip Kan Gotanda's play shares its title with a Japanese film, but doesn't share its rigor

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
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Floating Weeds is the title of a new play by Philip Kan Gotanda about a shiftless group of people in San Francisco. It's also the title of Yasujiro Ozu's 1959 film about a traveling theater troupe in a Japanese fishing village. Gotanda must know the movie, although his play never refers to it, since he's made "Asian Pacific-Americanism" the point of his career. The Ozu film is obscure in the U.S., but it's up there with Rashomon in Japan, so I wouldn't be surprised if Gotanda were trying to give us a drama that mimics the long, slow-accumulating sadness of Ozu's aging masterpiece.

The play involves a hustler named Bennie, his girlfriend Gloria, and Gloria's dim, innocent-seeming brother Earl. Bennie pretends to look for a job until he comes to the low understanding that people will pay cash rewards for the return of their stolen dogs. He ropes Earl into an amusingly unsuccessful "lost dog" ring. These events -- along with the romantic intrusions of a hipster named Sarah -- unwrap an Oedipal murder hiding in Earl and Gloria's past, a patricide that reveals itself to the audience even as the fatal psychological pattern repeats.

Ozu's movie also turns on a buried Oedipal problem. The head of an itinerant kabuki troupe has to admit to his "nephew," a boy in the fishing village, that they're really father and son. (The boy's mother lives in the village, too, and the old actor wants to settle down.) This drama of revelation unravels in extended, colorful, atmospheric shots of a humid and sometimes thundering summer in postwar Japan. Ozu handles his story with the careful patience of a director who won't move the camera until his reticent characters have had their say.

Gotanda's show, similarly, avoids getting to the point. It floats from scene to scene until a plot emerges, almost by itself. Without suspense, the audience has to be content with character, but that's OK because the cast is interesting as well as capable. Sean San Jose plays Bennie as a wiry, forceful liar, in a smooth suede coat and snakeskin shoes that he has stolen from a shooting victim. ("I'm not a shit, OK?" he says. "Everyone keeps calling me a shit.") Temple Crocker is cruel, dry, lean, and charming as Sarah, who sees through Bennie. Margo Hall plays Gloria as a calm and loving presence for Earl, but a monologue about her fears for the future also has an edgy force. And Noel Benoza, as the dimwit Earl, is excellent: He looks thick and sullen and dull in his furry cap and dumpy parka vest (although it's clear that Benoza himself is not at all stupid), and he never breaks character as a sympathetic clod.

Still, the play isn't satisfying. The violence that finally does emerge seems willed. Instead of one revelation we get three or four -- a whole series at the end, like the throbs of an orgasm, an appropriate image because the revelations are so extreme. The characters seem to fade behind the lurid things we learn about them.

Gotanda gave Intersection for the Arts and Campo Santo a world premiere, but he's also workshopping Weeds at the Royal Court Theater in London. It feels like a work-in-progress. This production has almost no set, just a few pieces of furniture and some heavy lumber leaning against naked, concrete walls. The backdrop (by Mikiko Uesegi) shows a blurred painting that might be a scum-filled version of Monet's Pond With Water Lilies -- a dark suggestion of floating weeds -- but who knows? Nothing here is fully committed. Even the references to San Francisco are slim, as if Gotanda wants to blur the setting, and later substitute London or Manhattan street-names for audiences in those places.

This vagueness may belong to Gotanda's theme, but it's worth mentioning that Ozu's movie also deals with rootlessness, and the movie manages to be concrete where Gotanda's play is soft. "Floating weeds" is a Japanese term for "traveling actors" -- and traveling actors are what the film has to offer. Gotanda's play takes its title from a parable Gloria tells about two brother-and-sister plants, which might be flowers or fine herbs but feel rejected as "weeds" by the wider plant society. They cut themselves off in a high wind and float away. Earl and Gloria relate to these weeds, of course, but the parable is strained, and strikes me as an excuse to use Ozu's movie title. Maybe Gotanda simply hasn't finished writing. His characters live, but his plot still moves on borrowed thunder, not on a heat of its own.

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