Randall David Cook’s Sake With the Haiku Geisha



Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02)

(Winter 2006 Issue of the JETAA NY Newsletter)

Randall David Cook’s new play Sake with the Haiku Geisha, produced by the Gotham Stage Company at the Perry Street Theatre, is a must-see for all past and future JET participants.  Early reviews of the play were written by critics who had little understanding of Japan, much less the experience of actually living in the country.  What emerges from the play, in a fine production by Alex Lippard, is not a superficial conflict of cultural values but a more profound assessment of the psychological scars left by cross-cultural contact.

Each one of the play’s vignettes follows a central character, three of whom are JET participants.  Charlotte Linscott (Emma Bowers), Parker Hamilton (Jeremy Hollingworth) and Brianna MacInnis (Fiona Gallagher) are all Assistant English Teachers who have brought their own uncertainties and ghosts with them to Japan.  The initial comical culture shock moments, such as mistaking Santa Claus for a crucified “Santa Cross”, soon evolve into a deeper confrontation with inner demons and emotional insecurities.  Charlotte’s story is told in a series of letters to her grandmother in England.   Her reasons for coming to Japan are never made clear and her prim and proper pose may be masking a painful memory back home.  Parker is a closeted gay American Southerner who finds that Japan is not the best place to disclose his sexual preference.  The combined pressures of being the local gaijin and a closeted gay man are hilariously exposed in a dream sequence, in which a class of antagonistic females throw painfully embarrassing questions at him.  Of these stories, the most poignant is that of Brianna, a Canadian who constantly reminds her students that Canada is, in fact, a sovereign nation and not part of the United States.  Her promiscuous affair with a Japanese teacher becomes a desperate attempt to escape the memory of her dead boyfriend.  Like many JET participants, Charlotte, Parker and Brianna are young college graduates embarking on the first years of their adult lives.  The often painful road to self-discovery and growth is magnified by the strange cultural surroundings. Brianna wishes that she could have one day in which she doesn’t feel like she’s “on Mars”.  All three characters must confront their stark naked fears and insecurities far from the comfort of their home countries.

The last two vignettes concern Japanese nationals: the English teacher Ichiro Hashimoto (David Shih) and a local girl named Sumiko Matsuhira (Angela Lin).   The impetus for Hashimoto’s story is a fascistic school parade in which the students salute a Hitler float.  Brianna is offended and Ichiro tells her not to blame the students for Japan’s historical amnesia. The resulting confrontation sends him into a retelling of his grandparents’ eyewitness account of the bombing of Hiroshima.  Historical memory is thrust to the present as the cast members stoically recount the horrible effects of the bomb.  Cook seems to suggest that the legacy of the bomb has permanently scarred the Japanese collective unconscious.

Sumiko’s story is the most conventional of the five and is structured like a self-contained one act play.  Despite her mother’s warnings, she embarks on a love affair with an Irish expatriate.  Jeremy Hollingworth plays him well – his bumbling Japanese is at first cute and charming but hints at a less than genuine character.  Sumiko’s initial distrust dissolves into full-fledged love and she bears him a child.  Ultimately, she is abandoned and advised by her mother to raise the child in Kyoto.  The child grows into the titular geisha, who connects the five vignettes by reciting Haiku poems.  As the child of Japanese and Western parents, she is literally the connective tissue that holds the play together.

Director Alex Lippard’s staging manages to mix both Japanese and Western theatrical conventions, much like Amon Miyamoto’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overture did last season.  Like the latter show, the actors perform on a sparse wooden stage, suggesting Noh theatre.  What makes Sake With the Haiku Geisha a more effective production are the characters which populate that stage.  Pacific Overtures suffered from an overly didactic and academic approach that left little room for empathy.  Randall David Cook has populated his show with real people, whose innermost thoughts are laid bare before the audience.  The excellent company of actors should be commended for bringing Cook’s script to life.  According to the program, this is the first production by the Gotham Stage Company.  They have provided a service for all JETs and non-JETS alike in launching their organization with this powerful play.

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