nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
November 30, 2006
Series One of Vital Signs inaugurates Vital Theatre's annual presentation of new one-act plays. Though some of the rough edges may still be evident, Vital Signs nevertheless offers a great chance to see emerging theatrical works covering a wide range of themes and styles written, performed, and directed by a number of talented theatre artists.
Series One opens with Shawn B. Hirabayashi's Tav, a contemplative examination of the need and desire for personal and cultural identity. In Tav, we catch up with longtime friends Ike (Jason Salmon) and Nate (Hanson Tse) in a cemetery in France as they take Nate's young niece Dawn (Kighla Carlson) to pay respects to Nate's deceased grandmother. In this emotionally charged environment, Ike, a currently rootless free-spirit desperate to start a family, is juxtaposed with Nate, a Japanese American with French and Jewish ancestry who is struggling to understand his identity in the wake of his complex and culturally patchworked family history and cultural inheritance.
In framing his philosophical and cultural discussion around the honest questions of a precocious child, Hirabayashi has created a clever forum for engaging his themes, which he does with both intelligence and depth. Still, the weight of Hirabayashi's complex array of background information often seems to be a little too much for this short one-act to support. The alluded to but unexplained nature of Ike and Nate's friendship, the extreme dichotomies in their temperaments, belief systems, and aspirations, as well as the improbable circumstances of their reuniting, might all work better if explored more deeply in a piece that could accommodate the scope of Hirabayashi's field of inquiry. Tav provides much food for thought, but begs to be expanded upon in a longer piece.
On the other hand, I could do with a little less of Series One's second offering—Mark Harvey Levine's The Remote. In The Remote, married couch potatoes Alma and Sam can't stop channel surfing until both eventually start to involuntarily recite commercials and programming themselves—switching back and forth every time the remote for the TV is clicked. The couple takes turns until they eventually reject the television and manage to free themselves completely by stomping on the remote. Unfortunately, there are no surprises here, and even the television references themselves seem stale and out of date. Actors Gia Rhodes and Frank Avoletta do the best they can with the material, but the gag wears thin pretty early on.
Vital Signs' third piece, How I won the War by Andrea Lepcio, fares a bit better. Ace Marrero plays an "Athletic Specialist" in the Navy during the Second World War. Although often dismissed by other sailors for his unusual and less-than-heroic assignment—procuring athletic equipment and organizing athletic events for the enlisted men—the narrator eventually finds himself manning a gun during the bloody Allied invasion of Italy—an experience too traumatic for him recount.
The subject matter of How I won the War is quite interesting, and director James Duff does a good job keeping the narrative structure moving, but the piece does seems to be missing a clear thematic center, perhaps because the main character can't talk about what is apparently the most important event of his life. The result is that what really makes this tale special, or why it's being told, somehow gets lost along the way. Marrero is amiable as the irrepressible narrator, and Toks Olagundoye is engaging as his patient but loving wife, but it is Brian Louis Hoffman who really gets to show off his acting chops here—churning through a series of authority figures and antagonists while keeping each one refreshing and distinct.
For me the clear standout of the evening is the final piece in the program, Michael John Garcés's Souvenirs. Rebecca and Aya are two American tourists in the Philippines exploring a secluded beach together. Rebecca, played with an almost desperate enthusiasm by Leslie Klug, keeps making flattering but enormous generalizations about the local inhabitants—generalizations which give pause to but don't quite take aback Aya, who is of Japanese descent and who is played with guarded reserve by Susan Hyon. We don't know much about these two women, and it quickly becomes clear that they do not know each other all that well either, when a seemingly harmless encounter with a local street vendor (Chris Tseng), throws both characters—and the audience as well—off balance.
Garcés packs more twists and turns than one would expect into this deceptively simple set-up while touching on a number of provocative issues along the way—and he does so with a flowing ease that marks him as a writer to look out for. His script also manages to really capture the excitement and trepidation of being a stranger in a strange place, a mood which director Mary Catherine Burke sustains beautifully in her smoothly paced and seamlessly staged presentation. The final nods go to Klug and Hyon—who deliver two stellar performances as Rachel and Aya—giving this first series of Vital Signs a terrific and wholly engrossing finish.