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'Vengeful Sword' kabuki dazzles at UH

By John Berger


Few things in life are guaranteed, but when the University of Hawaii-Manoa presents one of its "Kabuki in English" productions on the Kennedy Theatre main stage, it can be predicted with 99.99 percent certainty that the costumes will be beautiful.

And that the sets will be works of art. And that the music will be authentic. And that the cast will successfully re-create the highly stylized forms of speech and movement that are the foundation of kabuki in ways that entertain contemporary local audiences.


» Where: Kennedy Theatre, University of Hawaii-Manoa
» When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through April 24
» Cost: $22 (discounts available for seniors, military, students and UH faculty/staff)
» Info: 944-2697 or

After all, with the exception of the years immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, UH has been presenting English-language kabuki theater on a regular basis for almost 90 years.

This year's production, "The Vengeful Sword (Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba)," is the 31st show in the series. It lives up to expectations on all counts.

As edited and adapted by project director/translator Julie A. Iezzi, the story is about the search for an heirloom sword, possession of which is the key to ruling a samurai's fiefdom. Two groups are looking for it, but the would-be ruler of the distant province must also possess the certificate of authenticity that verifies its identity.

The certificate is missing as well and so there are two items that must be found. Most of the action takes place in a teahouse/brothel in the town of Furuichi, where members of both groups stop for refreshment and female companionship.

The central characters turn out to be Fukuoka Mi­tsu­gi (James Schirmer), a samurai who is looking for the sword; Okon (Evelyn Leung), the teahouse hostess/prostitute he wants to marry; Manno (Meg Thiel), the manipulative madam of the teahouse; Oshika (Jillian Blakkan-Strauss), another of the teahouse hostesses; and Kisuke (Tyler Nichols), the teahouse cook.

Schirmer, Thiel and Blakkan-Strauss are the major players for much of the story and they handle the responsibility in fine style. Blakkan-Strauss does an outstanding job in the major comic role.

Thiel emerges as a force to be reckoned with playing a hard-as-nails woman who feels secure in the knowledge that a samurai like Mi­tsu­gi won't hit a woman no matter how much she taunts him or how far she pushes him.

Schirmer's performance has a few lighter moments that he also plays well; Mi­tsu­gi's reaction when the sun rises exactly when he needs it is one the best. Schirmer and Nichols also succeed in conveying their respective characters' emotions despite the barriers imposed by their kabuki makeup and requisite kabuki-style vocal delivery.

We feel Mitsugi's pain in key moments and enjoy watching Kisuke reveal unsuspected facets of his personality.

The opening scene in the two-hour, no-intermission production belongs to Kristina "Matsu" Tannenbaum, Masseh Ganjali and Luke Cheng. Their portrayal of three low-level participants in the sword hunt includes Cheng chasing Ganjali and Tannenbaum off stage, into the audience, and up and down the aisles. Be prepared to participate if they come your way!

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