Since my last posting, Jeff and I have seen two plays: Red, White and Tuna last Thursday in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater and Signature Theatre’s Sunday night closing performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures. We almost couldn’t have picked too more different shows.
Red, White and Tuna is part of the Tuna series of lowbrow two-man plays featuring Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, and set in the fictional little town of Tuna, Texas. Last winter, Jeff and I saw Tuna Christmas at the Warner, and years ago I saw the show that originated the series, Greater Tuna. Red, White and Tuna certainly was enjoyable, though we’d both found Tuna Christmas a little more so. We had half-price tickets, but really pretty good seats on the aisle; these plays really are best-suited to more intimate venues like the Warner and the Eisenhower.
I’m still not really sure how I feel about Sunday’s performance of Pacific Overtures, which I’d never seen before. One of Sondheim’s earlier works (1976), it seems even less accessible than the rest of his oeuvre. Don’t get me wrong; I’m quite a Sondheim fan, but his shows are not typical Broadway fare, and this one perhaps even less than most. Local reviews of Signature’s production (and Signature is well-known for its Sondheim repertoire) were uniformly positive and full of high praise. I’m not sure why. Well, the voices were fine enough, and there were even some real standouts among the performances–like Donna Migliocci’s central role as the Reciter–but overall I came away, if not necessarily disappointed, somewhat uneasy.
Partly its the book, which seemed to me uneven and disjointed; the story surrounding the roles seemingly at the center of the story–the samurai-turned-governor and the fisherman-turned-samurai–ends abruptly, and the final scene with the now-grown emperor seemed rushed, pretentious and full of artifice. Yes, I realize that Japan itself was the true central character, but its treatment here, to me, felt particularly shallow and poorly developed.
I must also admit to some discomfort at the fact that the entire cast consisted of Caucasian men and women in kabuki-style white makeup and the same cartoonish black wigs for each; some actors affected Japanese accents, while others didn’t, though there seemed no particular reason for the discrepancy. I don’t know if any of this was deliberate, but it had the effect of making me feel a little uncomfortably like I was watching a minstrel show, only with blackface replaced here by whiteface and some overinked eyeliner used to simulate epicanthic folds.
I do want to listen to the music some more–it definitely displayed that familiar Sondheim genius for rhythm and rhyme, and I want to explore it further–and likely will buy the recent Broadway revival album off of iTunes. But I’m not sure I’d see the show performed again.