A trip to the theater is often synonymous with confusing Shakespearian dialogue or outrageous musical numbers. The Teahouse of the August Moon reminds the audience that plays can be simple and entertaining.
Set in 1946, a U.S. soldier travels to Japan with army orders to bring democracy to a small village in Okinawa. Adapted from a novel by Vern J. Sneider in 1954, Teahouse of the August Moon was the first play to receive the Pulitzer Prize, Tony, and Critic’s Circle Award. Two years later, it went to the silver screen, starring Marlon Brando as the Japanese interpreter between Captain Fisby and the village of Tobiki. Fisby unexpectedly falls in love with Japanese customs and a geisha girl named Lotus Blossom. The plans to Americanize are abandoned, and the two cultures come together to skyrocket Tobiki. The Teahouse of the August Moon is a delightful comedy that proves differences do not necessarily need change but understanding, because there might be more in common than we realize.
Performed at the beautiful, New Orleans-styled, Glendale Center Theatre, The Teahouse of the August Moon features a ‘theater in the round’ stage, which adds an interesting element to the play. As the audience surrounds the four sides of the stage, it provides a different perspective to scenes. The play uses the aisles and level of the theater, as well as the central pit, so it feels less like being an audience member and more like an inclusive spectator. The costumes were simple but appropriate in capturing village life, as Fisby spends a majority of the play dressed in a bathrobe. The appearance of Lotus Blossom in traditional, Japanese geisha kimono contrasts well to appreciate the beauty of Japanese life. Despite the stage’s limitations, the sets were equally impressive, being both simple and effective. Scenes could have nothing more than an army jeep and the actors but was presented perfectly. However, it was confusing that the production creates a teahouse on stage but did not use any equipment to perform the tea ceremony. By miming the movements of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, this was one instance where the acting alone was not enough. In the play’s most dramatic scene, the significance of Lotus Blossom’s gesture is cheapened.
Sean King (Captain Fisby) relies on his Matt Damon looks to get through the dramatic scenes, but they're not needed to show the character’s open mind and innocence, which allows the comedy to translate well between the two cultures. Reggie De Leon, playing the role made famous by Marlon Brando, is more of a “Confucius says...” character, out of place with the other actors who accurately capture believable Japanese villagers. The cast consists of professional stage actors with impressive credits to their name. Kazumi (Lotus Blossom) has credits to her name like The Last Samurai and the upcoming film, Memoirs of a Geisha. Several cast members also have TV, film and stage acting experience from Japan.
The most enjoyable part of the play came from the villagers, as the story’s development relies on the unexpected charm and enchanting spirit of the Japanese culture. A standout, comedic performance was given by Ms. Yukari Black, whose character did not speak English but her hilarious enthusiasm to adopt democracy was far from being lost in translation. The Teahouse of the August Moon also features an adorable goat that steals the scenes and gets the laughs by ad-libbing and eating away at the set.
A relationship between Fisby and Lotus Blossom appears without much character development, and it casts similar uncertainty to the relationship between the Japanese and Americans. However, George Strattan does a wonderful job directing Teahouse without any showy gimmicks to substitute for content. This simplistic approach relates to Strattan’s disappointment with the decline of theater attendance, of which he expressed, “people seem to be forgetting that entertainment is more than just special effects and car crashes.”
I found myself laughing at the pompousness of the American Colonel and his unbending American patriotism and the naiveté of the Japanese villagers, as well as moments of culture clashes and misconceptions about democracy. The interesting stories, unique cast of characters and the play’s ability to be simple yet compelling, made it worth returning to the theater.
Government goofballs, geishas and a goat make the theaters a nice change from paying for stale popcorn, sticky floors and big budget movies that takes away the focus from art to aesthetics. Warm up at The Teahouse of the August Moon to experience a blend of two cultures and a lump of non-stop, comedic entertainment.
The Tea House of the August Moon is now playing at the Glendale Center Theatre until November 19th. For more information, visit: www.glendalecentretheatre.com or call the box office at (818) 244-8481.