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Conscientious Objector 

Sadly, the city's most prestigious theater company disappoints again

Wednesday, Apr 11 2007
Of all the characteristics that a drama critic must possess to do her job properly, an obscene sense of optimism has to be one of the most useful. If I didn't walk into the theater each night willing the next few hours to be thrilling, I would have surrendered my press pass years ago. It was this ingrained spirit of hopefulness that drove me up Geary Street last week to experience American Conservatory Theater's latest offering, even though the company's last few productions have, frankly, made me want to throw my laptop out of the window.

Certainly, it had the makings of greatness. A major new play by one of this country's most eminent chroniclers of the Asian-American experience on stage, After the War promised to be a highlight of the local performing arts calendar and a fitting centerpiece for A.C.T.'s 40th anniversary season. For one thing, the subject of the play was both fascinating and deeply connected to local culture, chronicling the return of San Francisco's Japanese population to a much-changed city from the internment camps where thousands of them had been incarcerated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For another, no expense had been spared in pulling the project off. Commissioned and lovingly nurtured over close to four years by A.C.T.'s artistic director Carey Perloff, After the War took shape through some 50 drafts, a handful of workshops with members of A.C.T.'s core company, and residencies with such high-profile organizations as the Sundance Institute.

The media blitz around the drama only served to increase the excitement. For a while, Gotanda's face seemed to be everywhere — from the covers of American Theatre and San Francisco magazines to segments on NBC 11 to KBCW. I, for one, was won over by the Guggenheim- and Rockefeller-endowed playwright's eloquence and charm. Appearing at a public event at the library's Koret Auditorium (moderated by yours truly) just before the show opened in preview, Gotanda spoke engagingly about his artistic process and the ideas that fed the play.

Yet when it came to actually seeing the production, my feelings about it changed about as radically as Japanese Town in the spring of 1942, when President Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066 sent an entire community of innocent, hardworking citizens packing to barren desert camps. Rarely have 2 1/2 hours at the theater left me feeling so jaded.

The premise is fascinating enough. Unlike Gotanda's previous works dealing with the theme of Japanese-American internment in World War II such as Sisters Matsumoto and Manzanar: An American Story, After the War depicts the relationships between members of the Fillmore District's very ethnically diverse community following the return of the Japanese population to the neighborhood in 1948. The play revolves around the lives of the residents of a boarding house owned by one Chester Monkawa, a former professional jazz trumpeter. Monkawa is a wartime "No-No Boy," an interned Japanese-American who refused to sign a government questionnaire demanding unbridled allegiance to the U.S. including a total willingness to serve in its army. During the course of the play, various African-American, white Midwestern, Japanese, and Jewish-Russian tenants fall in and out with each other over everything from the ownership of a box of eggs to the paternity of an unborn fetus. At various times, they settle around Monkawa's shiny new television set ("called the "Locomotive' for its sweeping back style") to watch crooner Perry Como and discuss the superiority of fried catfish over sashimi. Meanwhile, Monkawa struggles to reconcile his own difficult past with an equally complex present.

After the War should present a tender, multifaceted portrayal of community existence, made all the more lively by Gotanda's careful ear for capturing contrasting vernaculars. The playwright's exploration of the Fillmore District's 1940s jazz scene, when performers like Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington played at clubs such as Bop City, the Plantation Club, and Jack's Bar (now the Boom Boom Room), should entertain us through light nostalgia. With its undercurrent of protest, the play should reveal what it means to be a conscientious objector.

But owing to the rhythmically inert nature of director Carey Perloff's staging, the heavy-handedness of many of the exchanges, and the monotonous, episodic structure of the play, the thematic and narrative lines fail to make an impact. Consider set designer Donald Eastman's painstakingly detailed recreation of a Fillmore District Victorian. Cluttered by a junkyard of period furniture, rendered even more shapeless by doors, walls, and stairs protruding at all angles, and destined to rotate on its central axis in slow circles throughout, the edifice looks like a hulking shipwreck with a television antenna for a mast. With each of Gotanda's staccato scenes book-ended by a fade-out and location change, the endless motion of the set not only exacerbates the predictable structure and pacing of the play, but it also leaves one feeling rather queasy. Plus, the sightlines are unforgiving to anyone without eyes on the sides of their head.

Like the jutting appendages of the set, Gotanda's play exposes its mechanics in a clumsy, soap opera-like way. Neither director nor actors find satisfactory solutions to ameliorate this problem. Ted Welch does his best to make the retarded teenager Benji Tucker rise above cliché, but this proves difficult as the character seems to be more of a device for moving the plot along (his mentally challenged condition makes him the perfect vessel for inadvertently spilling secrets about other boarding house residents) than a three-dimensional human being. Meanwhile, as the linguistically confused Russian émigré Olga Mikhoels, Delia MacDougall chooses to deal with the contrivances of her particular character by overacting. I wondered if she might have taken acting lessons from Borat.

I recently received an e-mail from a theater-going friend, asking why SF Weekly sometimes lets great productions slip by without so much as a mention while consistently devoting column inches to, as he put it, "the typically bland A.C.T. show." Our primary obligation is to aim, within certain parameters like space and geographic spread, for diversity — to review, indiscriminately, big productions and small, classic and contemporary plays, text-based, musical, and experimental theater. Yet despite this goal, it would be a lie to deny the comparative frequency with which certain performing arts organizations appear on these pages. And as San Francisco's flagship theater company, A.C.T. gets more coverage in these pages than most.

Looking back at A.C.T.'s last few seasons, I am beginning to wonder if my friend has a point. Most of the memorable productions that have come out of the Geary Theater in recent times (e.g. like The Black Rider and The Overcoat) have been imports from outside rather than homegrown work. I can count the number of shows that have gripped me in the last couple of years on half of one hand. I'm trying to remain positive, but it's getting increasingly hard. I wonder what it will take to turn this critic's obscene sense of optimism into the merely obscene?

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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