Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The phrase "New World," in historical context, conjures up images of discovery, adventure, fresh starts, and conflict between so-called discoverers and long-established native populations. Here, it turns out to be the name of a hotel in the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia's once thriving Japantown district. The year is 1963, and Japantown is a pale image of what it once was. Starting in 1941, some 22,000 Japanese Canadians, mostly from British Columbia, had their property seized and were sent to internment camps after Japan's attack on the British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore, along with the attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Those interned represented ninety percent of persons of Japanese descent in Canada at that time, the majority of them born in Canada. Repeated references to this trauma in the course of the play make it clear that the effort to rebuild lives and reestablish community weighed heavily on those who returned to Japantown, even fourteen years after the war relocation laws were finally revoked in 1949.
But the nightmare of internment is not really what Fire in the New World is about. Rather, it is a by-the-book whodunnit centered around hard-boiled private detective Sam Shikaze and his partner Jonathan Webster, who have their office in the hotel. They are alarmed that real estate tycoon Roderic Alexander is buying up the neighborhood, with plans to raze the old buildings and replace them with a shiny new development. Some of those struggling to maintain businesses in the decimated neighborhood are resigned to sell to Alexander, even if it means losing the historic center of Japanese-Canadian community life.
Sam, however, is committed to Japantown and what it represents, and vows to block the mogul's scheme. His resolve becomes more complicated when Alexander shows up at Sam's office, intent on hiring the private eye to find his missing wife, Yumiko–a Japanese American (from Seattle) beauty, who has been missing for three days. Solving that case, stopping Alexander's dirty dealings, and getting to the bottom of the fire that does indeed break out at the New World Hotel keep us hopping from plot line to plot line, never losing interest as we await the tidy ending.
A few other characters serve as Sam's allies and suspects: fishmonger Mas Matsumoto is a long time Japantown staple; Tom Williams is a scruffy and jittery white guy who works odd jobs; Rosie Ohara is the proprietor of an unadorned Japanese café with a survivor's instinct and a heart of gold; and police detective Kenji Kadota has a history with Sam going back to Shiomi's 1982 play Yellow Fever. A 1987 sequel to that play, Rosie's Café, makes Fire in the New World the third in what is now the playwright's Sam Shikaze trilogy.
With mysteries especially, it is important that the audience not detect cracks in the logic of the piece. Fire in the New World does show several cracks, starting with why the miserable Yumiko hangs around Vancouver for three days, allowing time for her husband to miss her, instead of hightailing it out of the country. Further, once we learn that Alexander is a first-class bigot and worse, it is hard to believe he would have married a woman of Japanese descent, beauty or not. For her part, Yumiko is clearly highly intelligent–we learn early on that she is a lawyer, and she easily matches Sam's witty banter point for point. How could she not have seen through Alexander before marrying him? And, given what we have seen of him, Webster's flip-flopping sides late in the going feels very much out of left field–not in a good way, like, "wow, I'm surprised!," but more like "give me a break!" However, that plot hiccup does allow for a couple of witty rejoinders, well delivered by Brian Joyce.
In spite of "cracks" that make it hard to invest in resolving the mystery, it is easy to enjoy the sharp dialogue laced with humor, and slick staging–playwright Shiomi also directs, and here he is in top form, with crackling sharp transitions, and action staged to evoke maximum effect. The central character, Sam Shikaze, steps out and speaks through the fourth wall as a narrator between scenes, which could be a cloying device, but is highly effective thanks to Shiomi's script and staging, and the fully committed performance delivered by Gregory Yang as Sam. It is fun to hear his hard-boiled shamus inflection, saturated with disaffection, tempered by a Canadian dialect.
Anna Hashizume conveys Yumiko's class, intelligence and self-confidence, though the plot pushes Yumiko to take risks that seem at odds with her very precarious position. Hashizume's Yumiko and Yang's Sam have good chemistry together, adding to the play's enjoyment quotient. Song Kim delivers an authentic portrayal as a fishmonger weary from a life of constant indignities, and Alice McGlave is delightful as Rosie, tenderhearted but braced with a steel core. The villainous Alexander is well played by Joe Allen, oozing with undeserved self-regard, entitlement and bigotry. Alec Berchem conveys the paucity of values that leads a young man to succumb to the likes of Alexander. As mentioned above, Brian Joyce gives a winning performance as Webster, so much that one wishes his character were more integral to the plot. Keivin Vang, as the police detective, seems less menacing than one would hope for starting out, but gathers force when the action heats up, in fight scenes very well staged by fight choreographer Annie Enneking.
The atmospheric set designed by Joe Stanley is extremely effective, with three principle playing areas depicting Rosie's Café, Sam and Jonathan's office in the New World Hotel, and an alley behind the hotel, with backstage passages allowing characters to seamlessly leave one setting and appear in another. Costumes (by Khamphian Vang), lighting (by Karin Olson), and sound (by Quinci Bachman) all serve the production well.
Japantown was once a thriving community with three Japanese language newspapers. The New World Hotel really existed. But that was all before. The Canadian government never returned the property taken from Japanese Canadians as they were interned in distant camps, so the only resource to bring Japantown back to life was the resolve of the few who did return and tried to make it their home again. It still is identified on some maps as an historical reference point, but long ago ceased to be the center of Japanese life in Vancouver, let alone for all of Canada. And yet, at the end of the play, we do not yet know that. Instead, we see the resolute determination of the two characters remaining on stage, as if they are not going anywhere, as if they will endure in this community built by their forbearers. Where those shards of hope come from and what will become of them is a far greater mystery than a missing wife or a woeful arsonist. If that mystery were explored, Fire in the New World would really be on to something.
Fire in the New World, presented by Park Square Theatre with Full Circle Theater, runs through November 6, 2022, at Park Square Theatre, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $55.00. Seniors (62 and up), $5.00 discount; military personnel $10.00 discount with promo code MIL; under age 30, $21.00 tickets with promo code 30U; students and educators with ID, $16.00 tickets, Area Two only. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org. For information about Full Circle Theater go to fullcircletheatermn.org.
Playwright and Director: R. A. Shiomi; Associate Director: Martha B. Johnson Assistant Director: Siddeeqah Shabazz; Set Design: Joe Stanley Costume Design: Khamphian Vang; Lighting Design: Karin Olsen; Sound Design: Quinci Bachman; Dramaturg: Stephanie Gordon Nakagawa; Associate Dramaturg: Stephanie Lein Walseth; Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Japanese Language Consultant: Momoko Tanno; Stage Manager: Amanda Oporto; Assistant Stage Manager: Katie Johns.
Cast: Joe Allen (Roderic Alexander), Alec Berchem (Tom Williams), Anna Hashizume (Yumiko Alexander), Brian Joyce (Jonathan Webster), Song Kim (Mas Matsumoto), Alice McGlave (Rosie Ohara), Keivin Vang (Kenji Kadota), Gregory Yang (Sam Shikaze).