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See What I Wanna See

See What I Wanna See
Lesli Margherita and Perry Ojeda
Michael John LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See, getting its West Coast premiere at the Blank, is based on three short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The meat of the musical is based on the story, "In a Grove," which is better known by its film adaptation, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. We're dealing with the story of the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband. Well, no; we know that a thief had sex with the woman and that her husband ended up dead. But whether it was rape and murder depends on who you ask. And that's really the point of the piece. Because whether the story is being told by the thief, the woman, the husband (whose spirit speaks through a medium) or a janitor who passed by, the story is colored by the person telling it. It isn't necessarily that they're intentionally spinning the story to suit their own purposes; it's that their own perception of the reality is actually dependent on their point of view of the events. In a very real way, each person saw what they wanted to see.

And what (somewhat annoyingly) doesn't work with the piece is that LaChiusa's updating of the original tale into 1951 New York somehow manages to deprive it of all of its meditations on the subjective nature of truth. If you aren't familiar with Rashomon and don't realize that LaChiusa is "doing" it, the whole story just plays like a standard police interrogation of five different people. We all know that everyone will lie to the police to save their own skin; we expect the suspects' testimony to be contradictory—there doesn't seem to be anything remarkable or thought-provoking here. Moreover, you might roll your eyes at why the police would possibly take a medium seriously, and you might not understand why these 20th century characters of questionable morality would (in their flashbacks) take actions that seem based on outdated ideas about honor.

But if you are aware of the Rashomon connection, you can forgive the medium and the samurai-style code and really appreciate the piece. Setting it in New York in 1951 allows LaChiusa's score to have a terrific urban jazzy feel. The lyrics have a surprising wit and stylized poetry that fits the characters of the time ("You don't know me from Adam, but we both was born of Eve"). Daniel Henning brings his trademark direction-on-a-shoestring style to the proceedings in full force—the way he has his actors use one table and two chairs manages to show everything he needs—and physical position alone can establish control, submission and even malice. Jeremy Pivnick's lighting design can make a foreboding area of the park out of nothing but shadows on the wall. And you couldn't ask for a better cast: Jason Graae in a tidy comic turn as the janitor; Doug Carpenter as the unrepentantly, even proudly evil thief; Lesli Margherita as the superficially shallow wife with an explosive bitter core beneath; Perry Ojeda as the husband who lets his weaknesses get the better of him; and Suzan Solomon as the medium cherishing her time in the spotlight. As long as you "get" the story going in, this nearly one-act play has a lot going for it.

While the Rashomon piece dominates the first act, the second act introduces a story called "Glory Day," which focuses on a priest in New York who loses his faith after September 11. Unlike the other piece, knowing the source material for "Glory Day" (a short story called "Dragon: the Old Potter's Tale") is of little assistance, as "Glory Day" actually parts company with its inspiration in some very significant ways, and watching it unfold is half the fun. In this tale, the priest (Graae again, this time digging deeper in a more dramatic role) decides to play a trick on the believing masses in order to prove that there simply is no God. While his lie spreads, he meets some of those faceless voices who need a miracle (Margherita is particularly good here as a flaky actress from California) and the stakes are raised. Because, while the whole show is called See What I Wanna See, we're now dealing with what people need to see, and that's something different entirely.

Each act of the show is introduced by half of another short tale, "Kesa & Morito," a brief encounter between two lovers in medieval Japan (Carpenter and Margherita again, in some none-too-convincing wigs). It's a short bit, again beautifully staged by Henning, and again raising issues of perception, as we see the same scene from each character's point of view. In a way, LaChiusa's musicalization of this story is the most effective, as each character sings his or her innermost thoughts, and their truths aren't filtered by what they think others want to hear.

The Blank Theatre Company—Daniel Henning Founding Artistic Director; Noah Wyle Artistic Producer—presents See What I Wanna See suggested by the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa as translated by Takashi Kojima. Words and Music by Michael John LaChiusa; Musical Direction by David O; Direction and Musical Staging by Daniel Henning. Producers Stacy Reed, Jon VanMiddlesworth, Noah Wyle. Associate Producers Michelle Appezzato, Daniel C. Garcia, Jen Huscza, Stephen Moffatt, Sam Rowley. Set Design Ginnie Ann Held; Lighting Design Jeremy Pivnick; Costume Design Dana Peterson; Hair & Wig Design Butch Belo; Stage Manager Ramon Valdez; Casting Director Scott David; Assistant Director June Carryl; Public Relations Ken Werther Publicity; Asst. Stage Manager Michael Geniac; Casting Associates Cara Chute, Erica Silverman.

See What I Wanna See runs at the Blank's 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood through May 23, 2010. For tickets and information, see www.TheBlank.com.

Cast:
Kesa - Lesli Margherita
Morito - Doug Carpenter
The Janitor - Jason Graae
The Thief - Doug Carpenter
The Wife - Lesli Margherita
The Husband - Perry Ojeda
The Medium - Suzan Solomon
The Priest - Jason Graae
Aunt Monica - Suzan Solomon
A CPA - Perry Ojeda
An Actress - Lesli Margherita
A Reporter - Doug Carpenter


Photo: Rick Baumgartner


- Sharon Perlmutter






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