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Changing Times 

Americans in Japan at Redwood Curtain; Humboldt Unbound at HSU

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Redwood Curtain

After the Japanese government surrendered to end World War II, American forces occupied Japan. The occupation brought close to a million Americans to Japan at its height, and even though it was officially over in 1951, there was still a sizeable U.S. military presence in 1954. That's the time, place and situation in A.R. Gurney's play Far East, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka.

The arrival of Wallace "Sparky" Watts, a young Naval officer for whom that immense and brutal war is already history, begins the story, but not the play. Playwright Gurney (who served in Japan at about this time) provides the framing device of a Japanese drama. It's a combination of Kabuki (stylized dance and music to depict historical events involving codes of morality) and Bunraku (puppet theatre with a single reader off to the side saying the lines.)

At Redwood Curtain, director Craig Benson modifies some elements and expands on others. In particular, he and scenic designer Daniel C. Nyiri create a stunning entrance for the Americans with the best physically realized metaphor I've seen on a local stage.

I won't spoil the surprise of it. But even with no prior knowledge of Japanese drama, it's pretty clear what happens: the drama is now about Americans, with the Japanese in decidedly supporting roles.

The basic story of a young officer who falls in love with a Japanese woman in an era of comprehensive racial prejudice, and the parallel story of another young officer dealing with another kind of prejudice, suggest some familiar and turgid predecessors. It's tempting to assume that the Japanese elements are there as arty distraction.

But neither is true. Director Benson's deft moments of humor and the subtle physical commentary of the Japanese characters aside, this is most overtly an absorbing character drama with elements of comedy and strong cultural and historical undertones. It reveals the living weight of the past and the first signs of the future, but through the lives of these characters in their changing present.

What makes the play most admirable — and in a way very American — is that without histrionics, the characters exhibit and act on self-examination and self-knowledge, as well as their particular drives and traits. None of the Americans are the same at the end of the play as they were at the beginning, and their decisions about themselves are involved in the changes. Nor are their fates yet decided.

Potential theatregoers shouldn't fear heavy weather onstage. There is a kind of buoyancy to this production. It's a skillful and substantial play with various shades of comic wit by a veteran American playwright, and it's likely to keep an audience musing about it long after its end.

Apart from Benson's directorial touches, Nyiri's set and Karen Kenfield's cinematically vivid costumes, what makes the production riveting and real is the cast. Josh Kelly as Watts, Valerie Buxbaum as Julie Anderson, Cody Miranda as Ensign Bob Munger and Lincoln Mitchell as Captain James Anderson are both emblematic and completely convincing as their individual characters.

Theirs are the naturalistic roles. Denise Truong, Craig Kuramada and Jeremy Webb must negotiate roles as both traditional Japanese actors and other small parts, which they do with grace and nuance. This is a play and a production that is a highlight of Redwood Curtain's season, and of the North Coast season so far.

Michael Burkhart designed the lighting and Ian Schatz the sound. Far East plays weekends (Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Nov. 17) through Nov. 23. 443-7688, www.redwoodcurtain.com.

Coming Up:

Humboldt County and HSU are named after him, but almost nobody knows who he was. Yet the 100th anniversary of his birth was celebrated with public ceremonies from New York to San Francisco. Alexander von Humboldt — explorer, best-selling author, visionary of ecology and human rights — was one of the most famous and influential figures of the 19th century.

Now during the 100th anniversary year of its birth, HSU is presenting Humboldt Unbound in the Van Duzer Theatre for two weekends, starting Thursday Nov. 7. After a calendar year of collaboration involving faculty and students in several disciplines, Dell'Arte's Michael Fields worked with a student ensemble to create what he says is not a standard biography but a quick and highly theatrical blend of live action, music and dance that explores the spirit of Humboldt's life.

Fields is assisted by key Dell'Arte colleagues: scenic designer Giulio Cesare Perrone, lighting by Michael Foster and songs and other music by Tim Gray. HSU's Catherine Brown designed costumes.

HSU student Mark Teeter plays Humboldt as the young explorer, and geography professor Stephen Cunha plays him in his later years. Luke Tooker portrays Siefert, his last companion. The ensemble cast includes Giovanni Alva, Ina Loaiza, Samantha Herbert, Kate Haley, Charlie Heinberg, Johani Guerrero, Gaelen Poultan, Chris Joe and Rilo Wage. They play multiple roles, not all of them human.

Humboldt Unbound is performed in the Van Duzer Theatre Thursdays through Saturdays, Nov. 7-9 and 14-16 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17. 826-3928, HSUStage.blogspot.com.

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