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Theater Review:

"PACIFIC OVERTURES," Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

One of the most poetically revealing scenes in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s exquisite production of "Pacific Overtures" – Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1976 musical about the westernization of Japan -- at its upstairs studio space is "The Bowler Hat" solo in Act II. Kayama, samurai-turned-governor, is transformed through song, gesture and minimal props from a gently traditional Japanese man scrolling calligraphy on an artful table to a bespectacled Western gentleman with a pen, pocket watch and the titular head accessory. Over the course of this cumbersome – and retrofitted – transmogrification, Kayama’s identity evaporates in a quietly tragic whisper of theatrical artistry.

The entire staging, directed with grace and an imaginative dramatic flair by Gary Griffin, is quite a breakthrough for Chicago Shakespeare Theater – a sprawling center dedicated to one of the greatest pillars of Western literature now presenting a delicately wrought theatrical haiku. "Pacific Overtures" was written as a lavish Broadway musical commenting on the Gog/Magog split between East and West thinking. Framed by two boyhood Japanese friends – Kayama and Manjiro –at odds due to their changing ideologies, "Pacific Overtures" traces the inevitable loss of self when foreign forces break through the isolationist principles of a remote country.

The story’s catalyst is Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 expedition to the then-closed Japan (once called Nippon). But rather than take an epic approach, Griffin opts for a sensuous and poignant minimalism in which 10 male actors portray over 60 characters on a Kabuki-style square stage surrounded by the audience. A masterstroke of suggestive design, this living and ever-evolving work of art makes the play’s realistic assessments even more pungent through a breathless series of optical illusions.

A whole culture and its weighty history blossoms on this tiny wooden stage designed by Daniel Ostling and lit with a fragile reverence by Robert Christen. Mara Blumenfeld’s black tunics and geisha-style costumes continue the musical’s transformative themes – moving from the whimsical to the war-like with the addition of a cluster of bobbing flowers or blood-red sashes.

Not a single detail has been overlooked. Movement coach Barbara Robertson has instructed the actors to use their bodies – in a very symbolic Asian way -- to seamlessly indicate the gender, rank and age of their multiple characters through bent-kneed shuffles or spread-eagle stances. Each actor becomes a magician who practices his craft on his own malleable frame.

"Pacific Overtures" also represents a stunningly effective approach to color-blind casting. For the most part, the multiracial ensemble does not tackle roles one would expect.

With the exception of the stellar and commanding Joseph Anthony Foronda in the traditional role of the Reciter (or Narrator), the outstanding Asian-American actors – Richard Manera, Anthony Hite and Michael Hagiwara -- frequently portray the immovable Westerners. The two Asian protagonists are played by Caucasian actors: Kevin Gudahl in a profoundly textured performance as Kayama and an intense Christopher Mark Peterson as Manjiro. African-American actor Nathaniel Stampley is a striking presence across his eclectic terrain of characters, as is Caucasian actor Jeff Dumas. Versatile actors with heftier frames, Neil Friedman and Roderick Peeples, glide successfully between an array of male and female roles.

Musical director Thomas Murray leads an impeccable group of musicians poised on a catwalk lined with natural percussive instruments. The cast flawlessly evokes the multitiered moods and complex political commentary of Sondheim’s music and lyrics (particularly "Four Black Dragons," "Poem," "Chrysanthemum Tea" and "Next") and Weidman’s boldly resonant book.

Marc Robin’s understated dance choreography and Robin McFarquhar’s balletic fight choreography carry this living art installation into the magical realm of Tai chi, samurai tournaments and tea ceremonies. Yet for all its familiar Asian imagery – like a large fan that becomes the sun and a butterfly – this production does not dip into a rippling pond of Bonsai-framed cliches.

Like classic Japanese painters, the creative team behind "Pacific Overtures" understands that meaning often resides in the blank spaces.•

"Pacific Overtures" has been extended through January 6 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s upstairs studio on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: $35-$45. Call 312-595-5600.

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