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Theatre in Review: Tokio Confidential (Atlantic Stage Two)

Mel Maghuyop and Jill Piace. Photo: Ellis Gaskell

Conviction may be the most underrated of theatrical values. As masters from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to Stephen Sondheim - all of whom have built stories around cannibalism, for example - could confirm, it's not just the story you tell, it's how you tell it. If an author embraces his or her material fully, the audience will accept almost anything, no matter how bizarre. These thoughts were uppermost in my mind at Tokio Confidential, a would-be musical shocker that asks the audience to accept far too much.

The premise of Tokio Confidential is a tall one. Isabella Archer, a widow from Boston, arrives in Japan after a long ocean voyage, only to learn that her Japanese sponsor has died, leaving her unable to enter the country. (It is 1879, a mere quarter of a century since Japan was opened to the West, and certain xenophobic laws are still in effect.) She is rescued by Ernest Osmond, an American art historian who offers to take her under his wing.

Isabel has come to Japan because her late husband, Ralph, had traveled there before his death in the Civil War, and she wants to retrace his steps; under Ernest's tutelage, she develops a fascination with the local art scene. This extends to the officially forbidden practice of tattooing. Ernest introduces Isabella to Horiyoshi, a famed tattoo artist, and she quickly offers her own back for his next canvas. Horiyoshi reluctantly agrees and begins transforming her flesh with multicolored inks. It's not long before Isabel and Horiyoshi are lovers, unaware that they are the focal points of a sinister plot.

Eric Schorr, author of both book and score, has been oddly influenced by Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. The novel features an American woman abroad named Isabel Archer who gets involved with an expatriate named Osmond and becomes caught up in the schemes of designing acquaintances. (The book is set in London to Rome.) James has provided only a jumping-off point, however, and, in any case, from the moment Isabella steps off the ship -- after a lovely opening number, "Restless Spirits" -- Tokio Confidential is a leaky vessel. It would be extremely unusual for a woman of Isabella's time and place to travel to Asia by herself, but there's no recognition of that here. The opening scene, designed to deliver her into the hands of Ernest, contains some notably flimsy exposition, during which Isabella puts herself into the hands of Ernest -- a total stranger -- without a second thought. (It also establishes the very odd fact that everyone Isabella runs into in Japan speaks perfectly fluent English.) In addition, Isabella almost immediately intuits, without turning a hair, that Ernest's associate, a young male medical student named Akira, is also his lover. (With such forward-thinking attitudes, she must be the original Massachusetts moderate.)

Then again, how likely is it that a Victorian-era woman from Boston would offer her unclad body to a total stranger for his art project? Isabel never expresses any qualms about this strange project; in fact, she all but insists on it. Her affair with Horiyoshi is seen as a natural outcome of this process, which is presented as inherently erotic -- but, really, by this point, Schorr is overdrawn at the credibility bank. Henry James gives way to Thomas Harris when Ernest is revealed to be a monster of Hannibal Lecter proportions, whose plans to expand his art collection include torture and murder.

Even more troubling is the score, which is characterized by a bone china delicacy and pastel prettiness that is entirely unsuited to this tale of sexual adventurism and madness; compounding the felony is the book's wooden dialogue and dramatic irrelevancies. The strangest of these involves none other than Ulysses S. Grant, who shows up largely so Isabella can deliver a thematically irrelevant anti-war message. This leads to a sequence where Ralph, apparently back from the dead, takes part in a musical colloquy with Isabella and Grant. "The Japanese can be quite inscrutable sometimes," muses Ernest, to which I say, not half so inscrutable as Tokio Confidential.

Johanna McKeon, the director, makes sure the production has a professional patina, even if she can't do anything about the problems enumerated above. She has chosen her leading lady well: Jill Paice is such a skilled trouper that, for a while, you don't really question the gaping contradictions in Isabella's character. If, in some scenes, she overdoes the vivacity, as if auditioning for a revival of The King and I, the fault is hardly hers, and she does a reasonably convincing job of seeming swept away by all things Japanese. There are interesting performances by Austin Ku as Akira and Marina Nichols as the geisha purchased by Horiyoshi to run his household. They know they're only pawns in a larger story, and Schorr gives them a pair of intertwined numbers, "The Jurisdiction of Affection" and "Looking-back Willow," that suggest what Tokio Confidential might have been like if its violence and sexuality were fully evoked in tension with the story's placid, well-mannered surface.

The best part of McKeon's production is the design. David M. Barber's set, with an upstage shoji screen, striking arrangements of vertical ropes at right and left, and a downstage path of white gravel that suggests a rock garden, has an appealingly Eastern look. Darryl Maloney's insinuating projections -- they seem to bleed across the upstage wall -- add to the effect. Joel Silver's lighting -- including some dramatic sidelight looks -- is appropriately lovely. Jacob A. Climer's costumes are fine representations of both Eastern and Western wear of the period. The only disappointment is Carl Casella's sound design, which is a little overpowering in the Atlantic Stage Two space. (This is not a production of Atlantic Theatre.)

After the overheated and not terribly believable finale -- it ends well for nobody -- it's hard not to wonder what drew Schorr to material for which he seems temperamentally so unsuited. Perhaps he felt that severely underplaying his story's oversized emotions was the correct approach. I'm all for understatement, but, in this case, the author's voice is almost psychotically detached from his melodramatic narrative. As a result, Tokio Confidential is incredible, in the worst sense of the word.--David Barbour

(13 February 2012)

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