The Sound of a Voice

Theater Mu

The Accidental Death
of an Anarchist

Hidden Theatre

          THE AVERAGE HUMAN being is an Asian woman. Think about that fact for a minute and it can start to sound utterly strange, like a word repeated over and over, both foreign and familiar. Of course it makes sense. But what do most non-Asian Americans generally know about Asian women? We don't even like to admit that our Target bills are written in their sweat. There's probably no group more misunderstood and misrepresented in the West: If women are the Other, then Asian women are a whole other Other.

          Obviously there's a lot more to being a woman than being an Other, just as there's a lot more to being Asian--and Asian-American--than not being white. So it was refreshing to see an evening of theater in which white people's ideas about other people were, for once, beside the point. Which isn't to say that Theater Mu's The Sound of a Voice isn't concerned with issues of identity, perception, deception, and miscommunication that relate to our multicultural here and now.

          David Henry Hwang's play is more a fairy tale than anything else, set in a cabin in "a remote corner of a forest" where a woman of ambiguous age (Maria Cheng) lives alone. The villagers think she's a witch, and say that she kills all her visitors. A sexy samurai (Masanari Kawahara) comes calling, posing as a passer-through. She offers her home to him, graciously serves him food and tea, and doesn't let on whether she's aware of his real goal: to have her head.

          The samurai sleeps with one hand on his sword, waking with a start late at night when the woman plays her flute, an instrument traditionally played by men. He likes it, and he likes her surprising skill in fighting. He settles in with her, and begins to turn his military mettle toward domestic tasks--like rubbing out a damned spot on the floor. He is being seduced the most powerful way: unconsciously.

          The set is all Japanese understatement, with two upward-curving beams to suggest a roof and a small tree representing the forest. Even though the play evokes traditional aesthetics and storytelling, it's got a modern, naturalistic feel; this is truly a mixed-blood production. Maybe it's Cheng's American accent contrasted with Kawahara's thick Japanese one (which can be difficult to decipher at times, particularly when his projection fades), or maybe it's because the issues, misogyny most obviously, feel so up-to-the-minute. Cheng and Kawahara are both quite good. Cheng's face morphs convincingly from very young to fairly old; at one point Kawahara makes the folds of his stomach "talk," a theatrical first for me.

          At one point I wondered if perhaps the woman was meant to be a man in disguise--gender is on trial here, and one senses that almost anything is possible--and then remembered that this play directly preceded Hwang's smash M. Butterfly, about a Frenchman who falls for a cross-dressing opera performer. As it turns out, Hwang (pronounced "Wong") originally meant the woman's part to be played by a man. But it's probably a good thing it wasn't. For one thing, I'm getting tired of the idea that by putting on a dress men can magically become female, or even shake up people's conceptions of femininity. Again, it's a lot more than not being a man.

          Hidden Theatre's The Accidental Death of an Anarchist also uses traditional methods to contemporary ends. This time the borrowed theatrical style is Italian commedia dell'arte, and the desired goal anti-governmental agitprop. Dario Fo wrote the play to skewer the Italian government's corruption, exhibited in the 1969 coverup of an anarchist's "accidental" fall from a window during police interrogation. Despite a rather ugly set and mostly uninspired costumes, the troupe put their breathless all into this farcical script--especially Brian Baumgartner, who, as the schizophrenic "maniac" investigating the coverup, emerges immediately as the powerhouse performer holding the show together.

          Baumgartner's monstrous presence is even better than the play itself, which begins as a proletarian pratfall comedy and takes a didactic and sour turn toward the end. This single act of police brutality is connected to authoritarianism worldwide, right down to the political thumb-wrestling just staged in the U.S. Unfortunately, the spew of rhetoric ends up feeling like a punishment for having laughed at all the banana-peel humor in the first hour, and one feels rather patronized. It reminded me of Lenny Bruce just before his death: self-righteous, unfunny, and all the more tragic because, after all, he was dead right. CP

          Both shows are performed at the Hennepin Center for the Arts. The Sound of a Voice, in Studio 6A, runs through December 1; call 824-4804. The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, in the Little Theater, runs through November 24; call 377-2616.

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