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See What I Wanna See – The Blank – Los Angeles Theater Review

 

JAPANESE LOVERS AND BROADWAY DENIZENS AND QUESTIONS ABOUT GOD

 

picture - See What I Wanna SeeTheater Review

by Harvey Perr 

published April 18, 2010 

 

See What I Wanna See

now playing in Los Angeles at The Blank Theatre Company 

through May 23 

 

Who would have thought that a piece which questions the existence of God in post-9/11 New York City would prove to be one of the most stirring and richly entertaining musicals to come our way this year? Michael John LaChiusa, one of the heirs apparent to the throne of Stephen Sondheim, has created an evening of mixed theatrical innovation, suggested by some stories of Rynosuke Akutagawa, which he calls See What I Wanna See, but it is in the final work that he hits pay dirt.

 

In "Glory Day," a priest loses his faith in God in the aftermath of September 11 and creates a giant hoax, promising that God will rise out of a pond in Central Park at a given time on a given day, spurred on by his Aunt Monica, whose atheism runs even deeper than her nephew’s religion. Among the people he engages are a CPA who has given up his materialist ways in favor of living in rags among the park’s wild fringes, a ditsy cocaine-addicted actress with whom he makes love in the bushes, and a reporter who was running from the flames on that fateful September morning just as the priest was running towards them. These characters are reduced somewhat to stereotypes but, as LaChiusa beautifully imagines them, they develop, thanks to the musically complex songs he has given them to sing, into totem figures. Any of them would be only too content to experience the miracle should it happen, a fact which adds to the priest’s perplexing situation, which is further disturbed by his aunt’s confession that she been lying about her atheism. It would be unfair to describe any further what happens; it is sufficient to say that there is an unexpected turn of events which pushes this little drama to a powerful end.

 

This is in no way conventional musical fare but rather challenging stuff, esoteric and inventive and demanding, a work consciously designed for serious theatergoers who are interested in and excited by new approaches to musical theater. Tired businessmen and casual tourists are hereby warned. The evening starts, for example, with two adulterous lovers, Kesa and Morito, dressed in ornate medieval costumes and lacquered wigs, looking like figures in a Japanese woodcut, sensually and voluptuously moving towards each other, their passion so intense it is both seduction and murder, seen at the start from Kesa’s point of view. At the start of the second half, they reappear, and their little drama is recreated, this time from Morito’s point of view. In each, the lights go out, just as one is about to kill the other. Who kills whom? Is it murder they commit? Hanging in the air is the question: What is truth?

 

The first half thrusts us into Broadway’s underworld in 1951, the year Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon introduced us to Japanese cinema. The title "R SHOMAN" refers rather obliquely to the fact that the letter “a” was missing from the theater marquee. And the famed story of that film is transformed into a pulpish film noir in which a thief rapes a woman and murders her husband in Central Park, and whose bodies are discovered by a janitor on his way home from work. The story is told from at least four points of view – which is what “rashomon” has come to mean. And just as the headlines in another variation on the material – Les Girls – screamed “WHAT IS TRUTH?,” the playlet asks that same question with great urgency and immediacy. Not nearly as potent or as successful as "Glory Day," it has its moments.  It is unfortunate that the program does not list the song titles, but the Kesa/Morito song is wonderful and gorgeously sung by Lesli Margherita and Doug Carpenter, and the janitor’s story, which comes closest to what might be called a musical comedy number, is performed with extraordinary style and skill by Jason Graae, who is also forceful as the priest. Perry Ojeda is superb as the husband and as the CPA, and Suzan Solomon, despite laying her New Yorkese on with a trowel, has a voice equal to the complex rhythms of LaCiusa’s music, which is at its purest in Aunt Monica’s first aria. I say “aria” because what is on display is, in effect, a series of mini-operas. And you are not likely to hear a better set of voices under the roof of one theater. 

 

It has been simply and nicely staged by Daniel Henning to David O’s elegant musical direction. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting and Butch Belo’s wigs add immeasurably to the pleasures of the evening. See What I Wanna See is, it must be said, an up and down experience, its intentions often more imaginative than its execution, and a certain archness finds its way into it, impeding the flow. But, if the evening on the whole is merely just interesting and mostly livened by its performing artists, hold on: "Glory Day" is not only worth waiting for, it soars on the wings of LaChiusa’s unique score and brings his unusual ideas to full fruition.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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