music friday
by request: the americanization of emily (arthur hiller, 1964)

tokyo fish story

Yesterday, we saw our friend Arthur Keng in Kimber Lee’s Tokyo Fish Story, a TheatreWorks production playing in Palo Alto until April 3.

The basic plot is fairly standard ... an older Sushi Master confronts the increasing influence of the modern world, while his not-so-young son tries to take what he has learned from his father and meet that world head-on. I don’t know that Lee is too concerned with the plot, which exists as something on which to hang the play’s themes of pride, family, and change. Those themes are also fairly standard, though, so the way the story is presented makes or breaks the play.

Happily, the production, directed by Kirsten Brandt, is continually unique and captivating. Wilson Chin is listed as Scenic Designer, so I’ll send my props his way. Virtually everything on the stage moves, and not in the usual way where people come out and rearrange furniture during blackouts. No, the largest structures are on wheels, and often seem to be pulled by unseen hands. The set is fairly simple at any one time, but it changes so rapidly, the effect is of many, many sets. The play takes place in a sushi restaurant, and most of what we see is the preparation areas of the kitchen. But occasionally, the sushi bar from the actual restaurant slides into view, giving us another room with little obvious movement. All of this is highlighted by movable walls, frames really, that come down from the ceiling and then are pulled up again, depending on the specific needs of a scene. Once again, this innovative use of space creates interesting illusions that allow the audience to fall into the spirit of the play. (Special mention needs to go to the fascinating way we see the Master biking to work ... he pedals a bike which is high in the air on a moving platform, coasting above and behind the other actors.)

Of course, we were there for the acting, specifically Arthur. We had a treat in store, for there are only five actors, but more than five parts. So Arthur played six different roles, which made for six times the fun for Robin and I. The various costumes helped differentiate those characters, but Arthur managed to quick-change not only his outfits but his presentation ... we were never confused. One of his six characters is a complete klutz who gets a job working in the kitchen, leading to several funny moments featuring pans and vegetables and everything else ending up on the floor. I’m guessing it’s quite rewarding to bring an audience to laughter thanks to your own inspired fumbling.

I can see Tokyo Fish Story as a film, maybe something for HBO or one of the streaming services. All of the actors, especially Francis Jue in the lead, would benefit from a judicious use of close-ups and medium shots to draw the viewer in. On the other hand, the live component was vital ... it’s not that the play is incomplete. It would be nice, though, if it got a wider audience at some point.

It’s really very fun to see someone you know in various plays ... not to mention the occasions when he turns up on TV, which has happened a couple of times. Looking forward to the next time he graces the Bay Area with his presence.


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