There’s something missing in Kumu Kahua’s season-opening production of "Ghosts in the Plague Year." Maybe it would have been there after another rewrite. Maybe it got misplaced as Dennis Carroll was writing the script based on another playwright’s idea (Carroll reveals in the playbill that his colleague,
"GHOSTS IN THE PLAGUE YEAR"
» Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
Bob Okazako, "had to withdraw from the actual writing" but gave him "input" along the way).
Whatever the explanation, as directed by Kumu Kahua artistic director Harry Wong III, "Ghosts" has a strong central story line, but when other issues are raised — masochism, incest, an opaque debate on Buddhist doctrine — they’re not developed. A character’s masochistic interests have no long-term relevance. The religious debate seems irrelevant as well.
Not so Carroll’s protagonist, Akira Tatsuyama, an ambitious issei (first-generation immigrant) who runs a haberdashery that is, in fact, a brothel. Tatsuyama needs money for the permits and payoffs that will make his business "legal." He needs more money to buy his sister out of servitude in Japan.
Tatsuyama’s foremost ally is his wife, Mieko Watanabe. She keeps the books and works as one of his prostitutes.
It is December 1899. Tatsuyama’s enterprises have survived a quarantine of Chinatown implemented during an outbreak of plague, and he’s anxious to get his paperwork approved and his business rolling.
The Chinatown Fire of 1900 is but a month away.
Tyler Tanabe (Tatsuyama) earns his starring status with a well-rounded portrayal of a man set on a better future for himself no matter what. Tracy H. Okubo (Watanabe) matches Tanabe’s work with a compelling portrait of a woman willing to sell her body for her man but frustrated by his unwillingness to commit. There are scenes in which Okubo conveys much without saying a word.
Talented actors create colorful characters around them: John H.Y. Wat as Chow Fat, a dying opium addict; Dann Seki as Masato Tsuzaki, a shamisen player; Marcus Lee as Kazuo Matsukaze, a "coffee merchant" who is Tatsuyama’s link to Chinatown’s crime lords; Ron Encarnacion as Alika Kaumu’ali’i, a church deacon who can’t resist Tatsuyama’s whores; Shah J. Bento as You Fong Chang, a wealthy merchant who wants Mieko for himself.
Unfortunately, Wong’s production injects a toxic and utterly uncalled-for dose of haole bashing into the story by having Scott Francis Russell (Dr. Hoffman) and Britton Adams (Dr. Wood) perform as cartoonish, bombastic buffoons. Nothing in the play suggests the doctors intended to do anything other than stop an epidemic that could have killed half the population of Honolulu if it had continued to spread. Portraying them as clowns abruptly changes the format from compelling drama to crude agitprop farce.
Wong wrote in his director’s notes for "The Hilo Massacre" last spring that "the goal of any historical drama should be to get you to question what you’ve seen and investigate further." That advice fits "Ghosts," too.