Tuesday, March 6, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "HOW I GOT THAT STORY" at Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company

A Quirky War "Story"

Mo`olelo’s dynamic acting duo brings the raw emotion and heightened absurdity of war to life in Amlin Gray’s darkly satiric play

By Donnie Matsuda

While How I Got That Story was originally written and produced in 1979, its tongue-in-cheek commentary about the atrocities of war and the brazen reporters who cover it remains starkly relevant today.

As America welcomes home veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and attempts to reintegrate them back into civilian life, many questions are raised about the futility of war, the human impact of battle, and the loss of soul and sanity of those involved in the conflict. It is exactly these kinds of questions that Amlin Gray deftly dances around in his quirky, black comedy How I Got That Story, currently being well revived by the socially-conscious and politically-engaged Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company.

(L-R): Brian Bielawski and Greg Watanabe. Photo by Crissy Pascual at Infinite Media Works.

Story follows a naïve newspaper reporter from Dubuque (a captivating Brian Bielawski) as he travels to a fictional country called Am-bo Land (a literary representation of Vietnam) to cover the war. It is there that his beliefs of journalistic integrity and objectivity are challenged when he encounters the complexity and chaos that is “The Historical Event” (a mesmerizing, tour-de-force turn by Greg Watanabe), a hodge-podge of 21 distinct characters that the reporter meets while on assignment all wrapped into one zany, comedic, over-the-top role. In the end, the reporter is deeply damaged by all that he experiences on the frontlines of battle, and as a result, he becomes a pathetic victim of a country he hasn’t made and a war he doesn’t understand. In the end, it is almost as if the playwright is secretly trying to say that in the Cold War-era it was actually Vietnam that conquered the U.S. instead of the other way around.

As the eager reporter, Brian Bielawski is incredibly convincing as the innocent, tape-recorder toting journalist who won’t give up until he’s interviewed just about everyone on the battlefield. However, as he is immersed deeper and deeper into the dark, war-torn world of Am-bo Land, his sensibility turns and he begins to unravel. As his character becomes increasingly fragmented and mentally unstable, Bielawski goes along for the crazy ride and plays the part as credibly as he can without resorting to too much melodrama. As written, his character must go a bit over the top with his navel-gazing narratives and angst-filled antics, but Bielawski does an admirable job of continually grounding his character with real reactions and heartfelt emotion.

The true scene stealer of this production, however, is Greg Watanabe, who proves to be the true piece de resistance of the play. Not only does he handle the razor sharp wit and physical comedy with great ease, but he is a thrilling vision as he seamlessly transforms from militant guerrilla fighter to slinky and seductive bar girl to macho Trans-Pan-Global executive to the ruthless and evil empress Madame Ing – all within the near blink of an eye and all without the aid of makeup or fancy costume changes. Given his masterful, mesmerizing performance here, I’ll bet there isn’t anyone out there that Greg can’t impersonate. And, if that weren’t enough, he also voices all the many sound effects in the show, from military planes flying overhead to Rolling Stones songs being played in a seedy nightclub.

(L-R): Greg Watanabe and Brian Bielawski. Photo by Crissy Pascual at Infinite Media Works.

To top it off, Seema Sueko directs her top-notch two-man cast with a sure hand and a sharp eye. Her strict attention to every detail pays off immensely as her pacing is brisk, her scenes are meticulously crafted, and her artistic vision is simply sublime. Sueko has gone to great lengths to understand the makings and motivations of war veterans and military journalists alike and her extensive research has more than paid off here. All in all, she fearlessly mines the play for all its worth and ultimately delivers a visceral and dramatic production that occasionally pops with explosions of dark comedy.

And the technical elements all meld together perfectly to create some sharp and edgy effects. David F. Weiner’s camouflage-inspired scenic design goes hand in hand with Stephen Terry’s dramatic, pin-point lighting and Jeannie Galioto’s casual costumes. Add to that George Ye’s offbeat atmospheric sound design and you have an oddball Am-bo Land that is as vibrant as it is quirky.

(L-R): Brian Bielawski and Greg Watanabe. Photo by Crissy Pascual at Infinite Media Works.

While How I Got That Story isn’t a perfectly crafted play, it is a very fitting choice for the always innovative and occasionally groundbreaking Mo`olelo.

At the very least, it is a timely piece of war-themed work and here, in the hands of a capable director and performed with verve by a dynamic acting duo, it proves to be a Story well worth telling.

Things to know before you go: How I Got That Story presented by Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company plays at The 10th Avenue Theatre through March 18, 2012. Running time is 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $22-$33 with discounts available for students, seniors, and members of AEA. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 342-7395 or visit www.moolelo.net.

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