See What I Wanna See
You definitely wanna see this one!
|Bailiwick Chicago i/a/w Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|See What I Wanna See|
Review by John Olson
Michael John LaChiusa is one of a group of writers who have been described as “Sondheim Wannabes” – an unfairly disdainful moniker for writers who believe musical theater can be as much about ideas as can non-musical theater and who, like Sondheim, believe that form follows content. The idea treated in this musical, which I would guess is about 75% sung-through, is the question of human beings’ ability to perceive and understand truth. Is there even such a thing, or are all beliefs and values subjective and different for each beholder? Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 film “Rashomon” is probably the best known treatment of this theme, and LaChiusa has turned to the author of the source material of that film for this piece. Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s story “Kesa and Morito” opens each of the musical’s two acts. Kesa (Sharriese Hamilton) and Morito (Harter Clingman) are two lovers whose illicit affair is about to end, because one of them is going to kill the other in order to absolve the dishonor of their infidelity. In the opening act, we’re led to believe the woman will kill the man, but as Act Two opens, we see the story from the man’s perspective and we’re no longer sure which of the two dies. The remainder of Act One is an adaptation of Akutagawa’s story “In a Grove,” the basis for “Rashomon”, in which the action is moved to New York City in 1951.
Not coincidentally, 1951 is the year Rashomon was released in the US and, as the story opens, four characters are leaving an NYC theater after a screening of the film. The story is told in flashback by each of four people involved in the murder of a man (Harter Clingman) in Central Park, three of whom are under interrogation for the crime by an unseen police detective. The first to be questioned is a janitor (Evan Tyrone Martin) at the movie theater who found the body on his way home from work. Next is a psychopathic criminal (Peter Oyloe) who says he murdered the man so he could rape the man’s wife (Danni Smith). We hear differing accounts of the fatal confrontation from the wife, the janitor and with the help of a medium, even from the husband.
“Rashomon” has been imitated and parodied so many times over the past sixty years (including an homage by Sondheim in the Pacific Overtures song “Someone in a Tree”) that its theme of the subjectivity of truth is hardly new. This first act has its interests though, including the arresting score by LaChiusa that opens with Japanese influences and moves seamlessly into 1950’s pastiche. Oyloe makes a scarily believable and repugnant thug and fearlessly compromises the tonal pleasantness of his bari-tenor in the service of his thug’s lower class New York accent. (Oyloe gets to sing prettier in Act Two). We also get introduced to the powerful and pleasing musical pipes of the remainder of this five-person cast and the lush-sounding but invisible and uncredited backstage orchestra directed by James Morehead. Though Oyloe and Martin give realistic and touching performances, the other three are more presentational. The structure of the script as a series of monologues gives it an artifice that’s a little distancing and the obvious diagramming of the plot make it all feel somewhat intellectual and cold.
This is not an issue in the second act, which – after opening with part two of “Kesa and Morito,” – introduces a story that updates Akutagawa’s “The Dragon” to Central Park in 2001, not long after 9/11. It concerns a young priest (Oyloe) experiencing a crisis of faith brought on by the horrors of the attack. He creates a hoax by posting a sign in the park promising a miracle on a specific date and time, presuming the stunt will teach others of the futility of faith. Before the appointed time, he encounters people who badly need to believe in miracles. There’s an actress (Hamilton) who lost her career after a disfiguring accident, a formerly wealthy and immoral CPA (Clingman) who gave it all up after 9/11 and now, homeless, wanders through the Park in the tatters of a business suit (one of the sharp costumes by Samantha C. Jones), a TV disillusioned TV news reporter (Martin) and the priest’s atheist aunt (Smith). The five are all humorously and touchingly real. Oyloe makes an amazing transformation from criminal to sensitive and boyish priest, and Hamilton’s actress is achingly sad. Smith believably plays way beyond her actual age as the sturdy and feisty Italian aunt who raised the priest. I won’t say what exactly happens at the scheduled time of the miracle, but it proves that faith like truth is highly subjective.
Director Lili-Anne Brown leads her cast in these sensitive performances in a production that is seductively stylish. Lizzie Bracken’s simple set includes a scrim-screen tree – as Japanese as it is appropriate for Central Park. Along with a few park benches, that’s all we need. Lee Keenan’s lighting design is the real star among design elements, making use of the good-sized playing area and establishing mood and change of settings most effectively.
LaChiusa doesn’t write many traditionally structured songs for this show, other than a catchy title song in the manner of post-WWWII big band music. Instead, he provides a series of catchy hooks and motifs that are accessible on a first listening even as they eschew familiar structures. He occasionally falls into a predictable rhythm – you can often sense when the performers are about to start singing even before the band starts up its intros. Overall, though, the score heightens the emotions and stakes. As a lyricist, LaChiusa avoids predictable rhymes and gives us insights with words that are never overtly clever or ostentatious. See What I Wanna See – a brilliantly colloquial title for this sharp thinking person’s musical – is as smart and entertaining as it is artistic and serious.
See What I Wanna See, part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep 2013, continues through April 21st at Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted (map), with varying performance days/time – see schedule. Tickets are $20, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through Steppenwolf.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BailiwickChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Harter Clingman (Morito, The Husband, A CPA), Sharriese Hamilton (Kesa, The Medium, An Actress), Evan Tyrone Martin (The Janitor, A Reporter), Peter Oyloe (The Thief, A Priest), Danni Smith (The Wife, Aunt Monica)
behind the scenes
Lili-Anne Brown (director), James Morehead (music director), Lizzie Bracken (scenic design), Samantha C. Jones (costume design), Lee Keenan (lighting design), Cody Reynolds (sound design), Heather Stuck (stage manager), Geoffrey Bleeker (production manager), Michael Driscoll (assistant director), Emma Deane (assistant lighting designer), Christopher Kristant (technical director), Michael Brosilow (photos)