Sake with the Haiku Geisha
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 1, 2006
Randall David Cook's new play Sake with the Haiku Geisha takes place at a traditional lodge in a small town in Japan in 1993. Three foreigners—from America, Canada, and England—have completed two-year tenures as visiting English teachers, part of an outreach program sponsored by the Japanese intended to help increase mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the rest of the world. We're at the three young teachers' farewell party, and there is indeed a geisha here, who speaks only in haiku and serves her guests sake. All are invited to share a story about their particular experiences. These stories form the play.
Charlotte, the young woman from England, relates her tale in epistolatory fashion, delineating her correspondence with her aged grandmother, to whom she confesses some of the feelings of strangeness and loneliness as she becomes acclimated to her new life in Japan.
Brianna, who is quick to remind her Japanese associates that her native Canada is a different country than America, talks about two incidents. In one, she finds herself pursued at a party by a Japanese man who is determined to prove that his manhood is superior to that of westerners; she winds up confiding in him about the recent death of her boyfriend, which was the event that triggered her trip east. In the other, she is deeply disturbed when a group of children at the school, seemingly unknowingly, name their team mascot after Adolph Hitler.
The American, Parker, is a gay man, but he's from a conservative Southern background and has heretofore never acted on his sexual impulses. In the play's cleverest sequence, he talks about his feelings of isolation in a culture where homosexuality is actively denied—he recounts a dream where he has been asked to give a "Q&A" for the Japanese, and the subject turns out to be what it's like to be gay. He also remembers his first "date" with a Japanese drag queen.
The principal of the school, Mr. Hashimoto, also shares a story. His is about his childhood, and the reasons why his father insisted that every member of the family learn and speak English. And finally, our hostess at the lodge herself tells a tale, about how she came to be the Haiku Geisha.
The stories are all compelling (though the first one, oddly structured as a series of letters, feels long). But except for the principal's tale, these are all coming-of-age tales rather than the explorations of coming together that the show seems to be going for. The whole point of the exchange program that brings the teachers to Japan is to allow for a cultural sharing, but Sake with the Haiku Geisha ultimately spends very little time on this idea, and instead focuses on loneliness and romantic problems. I wanted to hear more about why the school children would choose Hitler as an icon. And I was interested in learning more about contemporary Japanese attitudes toward sex, marriage, and feminism, rather than just the very stereotypical "traditional" view depicted in the geisha's tale.
In the end, I didn't get the sense that these three young people had gotten very much out of their experience abroad—certainly very little insight into the Japanese people emerges beyond conventional archetypes.
Cook's framing device could be more clearly delineated, as well; in particular, director Alex Lippard's use of the space—which pulls us away from the lodge setting almost instantaneously, before we've really had a chance to absorb what it signifies—may not serve the playwright's intention.
The piece is performed by seven actors of varying skill. Particularly fine work is offered by Jeremy Hollingworth as Parker (he's nailed the American's Southeastern accent) and David Shih as Mr. Hashimoto.