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A slightly less-than-perfect performance of Innocent When You Dream detracts from an otherwise innovative production with strong and meaningful messages to convey.
A few things about the opening night performance of Innocent When You Dream kept me from expressing the same complete adoration of the play as other viewers have. (Cue George Takei's rave review: "One of the most moving things I've ever seen . . . it's funny, it's sad, it's important, it's beautiful.")
Marketed as a "new drama about a Japanese American war veteran who finds himself returning to a lost memory, while his third-generation children struggle to interpret his wishes and unravel his past," "Innocent" is much more than a story about the typical dysfunctional Japanese American family, with intergenerational friction and a haunted war vet. Instead, "Innocent" raises serious questions about filial love, national loyalty, sexuality, and most importantly, guilt -- and these are the questions that makes the play so astonishing, innovative, and interesting.
The protagonist Dan (Sab Shimono), a war veteran now living in a nursing home, sneaks out to a bar with wartime associations, whereupon, he suffers a massive stroke, in the midst of throbbing sound and pulsing red light. Bedridden and maintaining only the ability to move his right arm, Dan wants his children Joy (Emily Kuroda) and Merv (writer Ken Narasaki) to pull the plug. As the plot unwinds, Joy and Merv struggle to understand their fathers' last wishes and reminisce about their family's love. But with their father unable to explain, they can only continue to wonder at the goings-on inside their father's brain. Alternately, the audience is a witness to Dan's dreams: flashbacks to his youth, the war, and a love he hasn't thought about in decades and still struggles to understand. In the war era flashbacks, Grace (Sharon Omi) is the tragic and enigmatic woman Dan once cared for, and Frank (John Miyasaki) is her closest companion who is a No-no boy, refusing to sign two key questions of a loyalty oath administered to all Japanese internees.
Moving in and out of dreams, back and forth in time, across continents in space, the play has a real challenge in bringing the audience along with the characters. In a previous interview with Asia Pacific Arts, Shimono notes it's "a pretty imaginative job of a piece here" and if it works, "it's going to be quite stimulating" and interesting. That said, Shimono does do the best job in conveying the time and place solely through tone and demeanor, transforming from paralyzed elderly to youthful vitality without blackouts or hair and makeup -- and only minimal costume changes with the help of Kuroda and Narasaki's characters. (Although interestingly, Shimono's character seems to have instead acquired an accent through aging). The other characters in the flashbacks, Omi and Mirasaki, individually put forth the effort, but all together something doesn't quite work. Meant to convey something of love, loyalty, and secrets, Omi and Mirasaki's characters fail to communicate the subtle nuances necessary to clearly present the delicate dynamics between them and Shimono's character.
In the meantime, Kuroda's character, a female civil rights lawyer infamous for angry attempted vehicular manslaughter of her husband, and Narasaki's character, the doofy youngest son, together provide some comic relief. When dealing with hospital administration and painfully stick-up-his-butt Dr. Park (Mike Hagiwara), Kuroda's frustration: "I'm sorry doctor, but as you know, being an Asian family our emotions only run at two speeds -- 0 or 100 mph."
A testament to the cast's acting, Mina Kinukawa's simple yet elegantly versatile set doesn't change the entire time of the play, yet it is convincingly used to depict a bar, a hospital, an internment camp, and a rooftop. An innovative use of video by John Flynn projects onto a segmented white screen in the background, showing clips of wartime footage as well as a typewriter with the two yes-yes/no-no questions of loyalty:
Question #27. Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Question #28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
Together with lighting and sound, the video projections expound plot elements and transition between time-spaces better than oral explanation would do.
"If not understanding were a crime, we'd all be guilty" stands at the core of the play's themes of love, loyalty, sexuality, and guilt. This statement refers to the characters' inability to understand each other; however, if it was meant for the audience as well, I certainly am guilty of not understanding. Only in deep thought and in retrospect as a critical viewer did I come to understand the questions "Innocent" tries to raise. As the actors took their bows on stage, there was only confusion and a sort of estranged protest in my mind.
Individually, all elements of the production noticeably work towards creating this unique theater experience. They raise critical questions about life and love without tying up all loose ends for an unrealistic or trite resolution. This I see, admire, and enjoy about the production; however, when it all comes together, there's something missing. Perhaps it was opening night jitters, with a few lines stumbled over here and there, a few critical actions missing the cue. But those are just production technicalities.
It might just be that, for all the play's movement back and forth through time, space, and dreams, the emotional driving force for all such movement isn't quite clear: is it the regret, the longing, the love? Instead, it seems that an alien omnipresent force is directing the audience blindly here and there. In the end, more clearly ascribed reasonings for the character's emotions and developments, I think, would have been that little extra kick that would shift my ultimate reaction from slight bewilderment to unconditional love.
Date Posted: 10/19/2007