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Regional Reviews: San Diego

tokyo fish story
The Old Globe
Review by Bill Eadie | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Camp David

Raymond Lee and Tim Chiou
Photo by Jim Cox
Kimber Lee's play tokyo fish story presents a quiet and respectful picture of what may be a dying culture: the Japanese master sushi chef working solo in his own small restaurant. Except, when it explodes in laughter, almost catching the audience off-guard.

Koji (James Saito) has been in business many years, artfully creating small masterpieces from the finest seafood. As dictated by cultural tradition, his son Takashi (Tim Chiou) has been apprenticing with his father since coming of age—except for one year early on. He's 39 now, and his father will still not put him on his own. The restaurant is down to one additional apprentice, Nobu (Raymond Lee), and he is still doing the bottom-of-the-barrel work five years in.

Koji's restaurant is "located in a dingy side street, in a dingy, declining neighborhood in the Roppongi Hills district." It was once a pinnacle in the world of Tokyo sushi, but it has clung to trying to reproduce the product that put it on top while everything around it has changed. The stalwart local businesses are mostly gone, and what has started to replace them is a youth nightlife culture that values energetically presented quantity over staid quality. Even the local tuna merchant (Jon Norman Schneider, in one of multiple roles) has to admit that his product is not up to the standards he once offered.

Formerly regular guests are cancelling their reservations. Signs that things need to change are everywhere, but Koji insists on doing things his way. When an obviously qualified woman (Tina Chilip) applies for a desperately needed apprentice position, Takashi declines even to consider her, knowing that Koji would never allow it.

While Ms. Lee's tale has some elements of Sholem Aleichem's beloved stories about Tevye the Dairyman, Koji doesn't entirely resemble the ebullient Russian. In fact, in one telling scene with the fishmonger, communication occurs mostly through grunts.

Nevertheless, the characters register as uniformly engaging figures, and it is easy to care about them and their predicament.

In part, it is such a pleasure to watch tokyo fish story because the acting is so uniformly fine, and in part because the production is so well constructed. Director May Adrales and scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams have turned the in-the-round Old Globe White Theatre from a liability into an asset. The introduction of Noh theatre elements into the production roots it solidly in Japanese culture, and David Israel Reynoso's costume design speaks volumes about the identities of the characters who wear them—and there are a couple of quick costume changes that seem to have been done by magic. Jiyoun Chang's lighting design helps one of those changes to occur in plain sight, and the original music and sound design by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts capitalizes on the rhythms of such mundane activities as chopping fish.

Ms. Adrales has carefully choreographed her actors, and they respond with vivid performances. I'd single out the versatile Mr. Lee, whom I've seen two previous times this season, playing roles that were both very different from Nobu. Mr. Schneider also impresses in the variety of smaller roles. Ms. Chilip has two very different characters to play. I've told you about one of them; the other is crucial to the story's development and I'll not spoil the enjoyment by describing it.

Besides tokyo fish story San Diego has seen Ms. Lee's brownsville song (b-side for tray) this season, in a fine production at Moxie Theatre. In both cases, Ms. Lee, who is of Korean ancestry, is writing about a culture that is not her own. Scholars believe that members of negatively viewed groups (such as Koreans, in some cultures) have a more accurate picture of the dominant culture than those who are part of it, but in both of these plays, Ms. Lee has written loving tributes to the cultural traditions she observes. It's a rare gift and one to savor.

The Old Globe presents tokyo fish story, by Kimber Lee, through June 26, 2016. Performs Tuesdays through Sundays at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, at the Old Globe campus in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets are available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE or online at