'Miso' contains much to chew on


POSTED: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

As a title, “;Miso,”; is deceptively bland. The Actors Group world premiere production of playwright Susan Shirwen's tale of rural life in early Showa Japan is memorable and thought-provoking theater.

Knowledge of the Japanese culture of the era is useful in weighing the characters' concerns and actions, but isn't necessary to appreciate Shirwen's talent.

The year is 1932. The world is well into a world-wide economic depression and the market price of rice has fallen so far that farmers can't get enough for their crops to buy food.

Noboru Nagao, the village school teacher and a veteran of the Imperial Japanese Army, doubts the veracity of reports that Chinese soldiers have attacked the Japanese-owned railway in Manchuria. His older brother, Kozo, an ardent nationalist whose dream of following their father into the IJA was thwarted by a leg injury, is convinced that reports of Chinese treachery are true—all Japanese must “;respect the gods and honor the Emperor.”;

Shirwen starts the story on a lighter note: Fumiko, Kozo's daughter, discusses the events of the day with her cousin, Masataka. Families are leaving the village in search of opportunities in other countries and she wants to go to the United States. She and her awkward but ardent admirer, Hideki, are fans of modern American culture.





        » Place: The Actors Group Theatre, 1116 Smith, second floor

» When: Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 16


» Cost: $20 general; $15 for seniors; $12 for students, military and groups of 10 or more. $10 for everyone on Thursdays


» Info: 741-4699 or www.taghawaii.net/OrderTickets.html




The issues ratchet up in intensity as the story progresses. Concerns about what might happen to Fumiko if her ultra-traditional father catches her dancing the Charleston quickly pale when Kozo returns home with Fumiko's brother, Shoji. The young man has volunteered for the IJA, clearly at his father's behest.

Kozo is proud of “;my son the soldier.”; Noboru is shocked. Fumiko is horrified. It isn't necessary for the audience to know the IJA was infamous for the brutal treatment inflicted on recruits to see that Shoji doesn't have the right stuff to be a Japanese soldier.

Act I ends with a cliffhanger. The tension is palpable as Act II begins and builds from there.

Allan Okubo (Kozo) makes a welcome return to the local stage opposite TAG founder Eric Nemoto (Noboru). The two are well-matched in the central roles of the weary, wary brothers. Elissa Dulce (Yoshiko) appears relatively late but her finely nuanced performance is rich in character and detailing.

Jessica Yuki Kauhane (Fumiko) is charming throughout as the innocent, yet spirited farm girl. Rick Murakami (Hideki) utilizes comic and dramatic skills in equal parts as the clumsy yet steadfast neighbor.

Joshua Lau (Shoji) is outstanding job in the demanding role of the hapless soldier-to-be. The role demands fluid physicality as well as a rock-solid command of the character. Lau makes the character—and the story—his own.

Charlotte Dias has an important scene as the harsh and outspoken dowager matriarch of the Nagao family. Matthew Mun completes the cast as sickly but observant young Masataka.

Director Clare Davidson makes “;Miso”; memorable theater but Shirwen's script leaves an important question unanswered: Were Japanese immigrants still being allowed to enter the United States in 1932? Or is that the point?