nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 11, 2012
I’m still scratching my head over Tokio Confidential, Eric Schorr’s baffling yet intermittently entrancing new musical directed by Johanna McKeon at Atlantic Stage 2. “Bonkers, but interesting,” was how a fellow audience member described the piece as we rode the elevator from the basement theater to the street, and thinking about it, a more apt description of anything I have not heard. After an over-long first half, Schorr completely pulls out the rug and takes the show in a direction that’s so bizarre that, without hyperbole, I don’t think I will ever believe what I saw.
The plot revolves around the choice of Isabella Archer (the always beguiling Jill Paice) to travel to Japan in 1879, following the death of her husband (Benjamin McHugh) in the Civil War (he was one of the first Americans to travel to the country after it was opened up by Commodore Perry). Upon Isabella’s arrival, she is befriended by Ernest Osmond (Jeff Kready), an American art scholar serving as a foreign minister. While sightseeing, Isabella notices a rickshaw driver with a meticulous tattoo covering his back, and suddenly realizes that receiving body art could help overcome her grief. Tattooing natives had been outlawed by the Emperor out of fear that foreigners would find the process barbaric, yet foreign travelers themselves could, in fact, be tattooed. Mr. Osmond introduces Isabella to one of the last-remaining tattoo artists in Tokio, who sees in her the potential to create his most beautiful work of art ever. Quickly, the artist (Mel Sagrado Maghuyop) and his muse become entwined in a life-altering love affair.
A whole lot of plot and absolutely nothing of value simultaneously transpire over the course of the 70-minute first half, which also includes a pretty but pace-killing Noh performance and an airing of grief and grievances between Isabella and the visiting American president Ulysses S. Grant (Mike O’Carroll). With the exception of the introduction of Mr. Osmond’s secret homosexual lover Akira (Austin Ku), a medical student, and Sachiko (Manna Nichols), the artist’s former muse and lover, the first act is tantamount to a red herring as the plot and tone change in a blink as the second begins. As Isabella morphs into a living canvas, Mr. Osmond, a psychopath of epic proportions, becomes determined to preserve it at all costs.
Were any of it set up during the meandering and lugubrious first act, the jaw-dropping twist would have potentially been easier to accept. Not only is the twist as unbelievable as it is unpalatable, the production is staged with such a dead-seriousness that the introduction of such a ludicrously preposterous plot point is greeted with shrieks of laughter.
Accentuating the positive, there are beautiful melodies and intelligent lyrics abound, gorgeously sung by a cast led by the absolutely wonderful Paice. The design, for a small production, is surprisingly sumptuous, featuring lush costumes by Jacob A. Climer, evocative lighting by Joel Silver, nifty projections by Darrel Maloney, and an unobtrusive set by David M. Barber.
I don’t know what the next step is for Tokio Confidential after it closes on February 19, but if they’re hoping for a future life, they’ve got a lot of work to do.