KPBS AIRDATE: March 13, 1996
In theater, as in life, there is process and there is product. Most often, all we see is the product, and we either infer the process or don’t think much about it. But in two current San Diego theater offerings, “Terminal” and “The Gate of Heaven,” we have been told a great deal about the inception and the creation. In both cases, this is an asset and a liability.
In the program notes of “The Gate of Heaven,” playwrights Lane Nishikawa and Victor Talmadge tell us all: how the play is based on historical fact from both their families. Nishikawa had three uncles who fought with the U.S Army’s 442 during the second world war. This Japanese-American regiment was the most highly decorated unit in American military history and, among other acts, it liberated the concentration camp at Dachau.
Talmadge had relatives who escaped from or died in the concentration camps. Both men were very well acquainted with issues of identity, hypocrisy and racism. And so, of course, are the characters they created and they portray: Kiyoshi “Sam” Yamamoto and Leon Ehrlich. The Japanese-American saves the life of the German Jew, carrying him out of the rubble of Dachau, offering him water and chocolate. Thus begins a friendship that lasts 50 years, from 1945 to 1996. There are many touching moments in the production, simply and beautifully directed and designed, with a marvelous cultural blending of music, setting and theatrical devices.
It’s lovely to look at, and the acting is quite good. Talmadge is erratic as Leon, with an accent and sensitivity that come and go. But Nishikawa is radiant, energy incarnate onstage. The trouble is, they just don’t trust their audience. They tell us what to consider, how to feel, what connections to make, and what conclusions to draw. Then, they underline it with overhead projections. Please, I kept thinking all evening, just leave me alone and let me think.
No one could complain about that in the work of Joseph Chaikin. It is designed to make you think. This theater revolutionary, seminal figure in the American avant-garde, had a revolutionary way of developing theatrical material. It was very personal, presentational, physical, visceral, collaboratively evolved over months of ensemble work. This quarter, Chaikin came to UCSD to direct and re-configure his groundbreaking “Terminal,” a ritualized meditation on life and death, which first played Off Off Broadway in 1970, and is about to embark on a world tour, in a newly updated version.
Chaikin spent several weeks working with third year graduate students at UCSD. Some of the additions came from their ideas and exercises. Last week, a two-day seminar was devoted to analysis of the process and its influence on experimental theater worldwide.
But when the performance was aired, something was missing. Maybe it was the months of process. Maybe it was the passion of the sixties. But though the production is splendid and striking, it doesn’t get you in the gut, except for a few moments, a few speeches, most of them from the original Open Theatre production.
Despite his stroke and aphasia, Chaikin is still an eye-popping director. His cast is variable, but Matt Hoverman stands out, as one who really seemed to have “gotten” what Chaikin is trying to do.
What Chaikin is trying to do is make his audience think, and nothing here succeeds as much as the hypnotically repeated Buddhist philosophical refrain: “The judgment of your life is your life.” You don’t need process or explication to heed that warning.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.