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STAGE WEEK

Kitchen Collective Offers a Poetic View of Vietnam

November 08, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

Rick Berg thinks it's time to hear about Vietnam from another point of view. "Most (literature) that's come out of it has been by combat vets," said Berg, whose Kitchen Collective is presenting a collection of poems in "A Vietnam Requiem" at the Wallenboyd.

"The poems come from the Third World, people involved in the anti-war movement, Vietnamese and various minorities in the United States," he added. "What it does is give a whole different perspective on Vietnam--so it's less about the Vietnam War and more about the war in Vietnam. The difference? There was more going on there than the slaughter of American soldiers. There was a war going on in a country, a country that had a culture and a history."

The 35-plus poems (which date from 900 BC to the present and include the words of Allen Ginsberg and Ho Chi Minh) will be read by 10 members of the collective--not including Berg. "As a vet, I can speak about Vietnam with great authority," he explained. "But that takes words away from other people--and I want to give them to them. So all I've done is compile other people's words."

As for the minimalist staging: "You won't see any acting. We're not performing the poems; we're reading them, drawing pictures with words. That undercuts a whole bunch of things about theater in this city, which seems to be an annex of TV and movies. And it undercuts Vietnam, takes away the sensationalism. The sensationalism is about the thrill of combat. You can't put that onstage, but you can (re-create) that emotion."

Another dark episode in American history marks Robert Schenkkan's "Tachinoki," opening Thursday at Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Originally created for the Western Avenue Project that played earlier this year at EST, "Tachinoki" (meaning evacuation--and also, ironically, to take a vacation) tells the story of Los Angeles resident Sumi Seo Seki and her experiences during--but not limited to--internment in a Japanese relocation camp during World War II. "I think there's a lot of mystique about what life was like in the camps," said director Heidi Davis. "Well, they weren't concentration camps; people didn't die. They wrote their haiku and had babies.

"The style of the piece (enacted by a multiracial cast of six) is a combination of Brecht, living newspaper, agitprop and some dramatic scenes," added the director, whose own mother was a veteran of the camps. "And there's a lot of information to get across: 'This happened because of this and this. Then the Army said this, and Earl Warren made this statement.' But it's not a matter of finger-pointing. The story--which is really about Sumi Seo--should be educational and moving . . . and painless."

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: "Jailbirds on Broadway," a musical romp by Bill Steinkeller, Cheri Eichen and Jeff Rizzo, opened recently at the Tiffany Theatre.

Said Don Shirley in The Times: "Seldom has one show called to mind so many others, most of them shorter in length. . . . The drag act is the funniest thing in the show . . . and both the leads (Fern Fitzgerald and Constance Harcar) get their share of laughs. Elmarie Wendel does better than that as their grizzled mentor. But only Ralph Bruneau, as a kindly prison guard, sings as well as he acts. The songs display some cheek, but more often are too pale for parody."

Ed Kaufman, in the Hollywood Reporter, dubbed it "a high-spirited spoof (which) manages to combine two tried-and-true show-biz genres: women's prison films and backstage musicals. As well as being outlandish and outrageous, 'Jailbirds' is full of vim and verve, with a company that teems with savvy and kinetic energy. . . . Credit Glenn Casale for the stylish direction, Paulie Jenkins for the effective lighting, Rob Barron for the tasteful choreography and Carol Weiss for the musical direction."

Said Drama-Logue's T. H. McCulloh: "(It's) a charmer from beginning to end, the satire full of chuckles and belly laughs, snickers and wit. . . . There isn't a weak link in the vocal chain which holds it all together, particularly in the leads. Both Constance Harcar as diminutive Penny with a big voice and Fern Fitzgerald as Turtle with a smart mouth and an even smarter way with a song, get a big round of applause for their talents and their ability to keep a straight face."

L.A. Weekly's Tom Provenzano was even more impressed: "Every moment and every characterization in this combination send-up of both 'women in prison' and 'backstage musical' movies is so faithfully grounded in the fantasized reality of its source and so submissive to the whole of the ensemble that the play soars without missing a comic beat. Every voice and all of the acting are wonderful."

In Daily Variety, Tim Gray concluded that " 'Jailbirds' is an impressive mess of a musical, with several outstanding performances, some solid laughs and very good songs, all scotch-taped onto a book with less focus or structure than most college talent shows.

Last, from Tom Jacobs in the Daily News: "The show's greatest strength is its snappy one-liners. Eichen and Steinkeller have honed their ability to (write) clever retorts. Its greatest weakness is its tameness, it television-like tendency to take outrageous subject matter and neutralize it into inoffensiveness. A musical set inside a women's prison could, and should, have been as outrageous as it was hilarious. 'Jailbirds' is . . . nice. 'Cute' also comes to mind, as does 'commercial.' "

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