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Friday, September 10, 2004



Chan, Haro stand out
in off-Broadway’s
‘Philemon’


A senior military commander's plan to capture an insurgent leader goes terribly awry when the man he's entrusted with the mission is won over by the insurgents' beliefs and changes allegiance.

No, this isn't more bad news from Baghdad, but the plot of "Philemon," a little-known off-Broadway musical by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt that played to sold-out houses last weekend in the University of Hawaii-Manoa Ernst Lab Theatre.

The story is set in the year 278 A.D. and takes place in the Antioch, a backwater of the Roman Empire and hotbed of anti-government insurgency. Markus Gallerius, the Roman commander charged with maintaining order, intends to find the insurgent leader by inserting an agent into their network.

The man he chooses is a petty criminal named Cockian who ran afoul of the law when his long-suffering female partner turned him in to the Romans for pimping her -- telling them he had also been dealing in contraband and selling "protection" to Jews and Christians.

Gallerius makes Cockian an offer he can't refuse: Help Rome by impersonating an insurgent leader named Philemon, or die slowly and painfully in a work camp. None of the local Christians have ever seen Philemon, let alone know that he died while being interrogated, so all Cockian has to do is impersonate Philemon long enough to win the trust of the imprisoned Christians and get the information. In return, he'll be given a clean record, free passage back to his native Greece and some money.

What's an amoral criminal to do?

Alvin Chan (Cockian) is convincing whether playing a shallow and minimally talented street clown or a committed martyr, even though he wears so much eye makeup that he often appears to be crying black tears. Chan has demonstrated his range in several risky roles in recent years. This role is another success for him and shows his abilities as a song-and-dance man.

Pedro Haro gives a solid performance as an honorable Roman officer doing his patriotic duty in a distant land he neither likes nor understands. Terry Allen (Servillus) speaks for generations of soldiers when he says that he'll obey orders no matter which group holds power.

Daniel Akiyama makes a believable transition from comic character to Christian martyr. Coty Ishitani adds a beautiful voice and seductive presence as a mysterious woman in white.

What's lacking in director Allyson Paris' production is an emotional connection. Gallerius' desire to do his job and return to Rome seems at least as noble as Cockian's dream of accumulating enough money to return to Greece.

As for moral issues, Cockian has spent his life believing in nothing, then finds a cause he's willing to die for and chooses martyrdom. Bravo! At a time when we are involved in a war with "insurgents" equally willing to die for their cause, the divide between "good guys" and who are the "bad guys" is hazy.

Jungah Han's stark impressionistic set suffices for this flat, passionless parable. A twin set of stairs leading up to the grid allow the Romans to descend into the depths of the prison.



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