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Stage Review : Modern Works Find Use For Legendary Images

February 19, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

One can envy the Asian-American playwright both for the wealth of his theatrical heritage and for the natural way he draws on it. Wakako Yamauchi's "The Memento" at the East West Players (reviewed here Monday) centers on a haunted Noh mask. David Hwang's "As the Crow Flies" and "The Sound of a Voice" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center employ the ghosts and the demon-women of Kabuki.

Like Yamauchi, Hwang isn't trying to reconstitute an old form, but to see what power these legendary images have in a modern matrix. His first play, set in the present, concerns an old Chinese lady (Nobu McCarthy) and her black maid (Phyllis Applegate). The old lady can talk with spirits; the maid has a second self, a swinger. An exorcism seems called for, but the swinger turns out to be a heavenly messenger. She assists the old lady offstage. The shadow of the crow descends.

"The Sound of a Voice" seems the more substantial play. This has the feeling of a medieval tale, like "Rashomon." A young warrior (Nelson Mashita) finds lodging with a woman (Gerrielani Miyazaki) who lives alone in the woods. She feeds him, defers to him in every way. He stays on.

Everything seems placid. In fact, he believes her to be a man-destroying witch, and has come to her hut in order to kill her. She knows this, but bides her time. As the weeks go by, he feels himself weakening under her spell--if it is a spell. His fears erupt into rage. There is a contest of skills. At the end, a body dangles from a noose in the woman's garden.

This is a skillfully ordered and beautifully written play. On the one hand, it has the simplicity of a folk tale, with the air of mystery that folk tales often possess. On the other hand, it's an acute study of male and female psychology. For example, the warrior is impatient at the woman's eternal deference, but he's enraged when she turns out to be his superior in combat. She must be a witch!

Is she? We can't say, but there's something very touching in her hope that once he sees her true power, he won't be frightened and turn away--like all the others. Both Mashita and Miyazaki play their roles with energy, but it's Miyazaki who comes closest to understanding the wellsprings of her character's behavior.

The director is Reza Abdoh, and much of his work, to put it bluntly, is absurd. He and designer Timian Alsaker constantly intrude upon the play, in one case quite dangerously--i.e., those three sunken light wells set in the middle of the narrow stage. One slip could result in serious injury to one of the actors, and Mashita, especially, has to do a lot of running around, often with sword in hand.

It's a classic post-modern production--a sterile white stage full of arbitrary oddnesses. The witch in the woods is first seen as a young woman in a black veiled 1940s-style hat, an image that wouldn't be out of place on the latest cover of Vanity Fair. Two of Robert Wilson's aluminum ladderback chairs turn up, and the apples go spilling over the white tiled floor as they did in Lucian Pintillie's "Tartuffe" at the Guthrie Theatre.

It all couldn't be more trendy, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the deep, disquieting strangeness that a forest legend should engender. An abstract backdrop for Hwang's tale would have been fine; this one keeps calling attention away from it and towards its own cleverness. It's window decoration, not theater.

And yet "The Sound of a Voice" comes through--proof that its author has one.

'THE SOUND OF A VOICE' and 'AS THE CROW FLIES' Two one-act plays by David Hwang, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Reza Abdoh. Producer Diane White. Set, lighting, costumes by Timian Alsaker. Sound design Jon Gottlieb. Musical direction Carl Stone. Production stage manager Donald David Hill. "As the Crow Flies" cast: Phyllis Applegate, Nobu McCarthy, Nelson Mashita. "The Sound of a Voice" cast: Nelson Mashita, Gerrielani Miyazaki, Sarvi Shevbany. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes March 2. Tickets $10-$20. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 995-9960.

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