Stylistically, Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda seems to become a different artist with each new work: swapping the naturalistic comedy-drama of “The Wash” for brash satire in “Yankee Dawg You Die,” creating a sprawling magical-realist canvas for “Fish Head Soup” or a more introspective surrealism in “Day Standing on Its Head.”
His latest, “Ballad of Yachiyo,” strikes out in yet another direction. This complexly structured effort draws on a Gotanda family secret to limn an engrossing, if finally flawed, drama of domestic intrigue. The secret is long-dead Aunt Yachiyo (Sala Iwamatsu), whose suicide in 1919 at age 17 was left unmentioned for decades. Presumably taking some imaginative liberties, Gotanda sketches a bright young woman living amongst the Japanese-American community on the Hawaiian isle Kauai. Her parents want a better life for Yachiyo than low-paid drudgery, so they send her several miles away to live with wealthy Okusan (Emily Kuroda), whose late father owed the family a favor.
Yachiyo is to learn refined manners from Okusan and apprentice under the woman’s potter husband, Hiro (Lane Nishikawa). But this is an unpleasant household; Hiro, bitter about leaving behind his life in Japan, cheats on his spouse and treats Yachiyo with contempt. The latter misses her parents badly, not to mention her boyfriend, Willie (Greg Watanabe), a cane field laborer agitating for better wages.
At first glance Okusan appears very much the long-suffering wife. The two women bond, in large part as a protective front against Hiro’s harshness. Yet over time Yachiyo wins the husband’s grudging respect, growing to understand the reasons behind his ill temper. Okusan jealously misinterprets their friendship at first; then her fears come true.
Gotanda tells this story in a dense weave of short, sometimes cross-cut scenes that run the gamut from conventional dialogue and interior monologues to puppet interludes (designed by Bruce Schwartz). Longtime Gotanda collaborator Sharon Ott’s Berkeley Rep staging manages each transition seamlessly.
This is a beautifully textured production, with haunting images (notably a drowned man floating in space) plentiful on Loy Arcenas’ movable, multi-tiered, screened set. But rewarding as it is moment by moment, the show sometimes seems top-heavy, too laden with portent for what turns out to be a rather familiar love-triangle tragedy.
Gotanda’s writing is superb in etching most characters and simpler dramatic concepts — a tense tea ceremony speaks volumes, for instance. The prickly, contrary nature of Hiro, however, throws him for a loop. Nishikawa is wonderful when this figure gets to evince some humor or warmth; but pretentious speeches about his spiritual nothingness stop the play cold, and a confrontation with Willie makes little sense. Also, Iwamatsu’s Yachiyo seems too willful for the sacrificial ending to carry the desired weight; despite all evident period and cultural moral strictures, we don’t believe she’d end up the crushed flower petal.
In the end, “Ballad” seems uneasily balanced between a modern psychological complexity and something more mythic and elemental. The two strains never quite meld. Still, there’s a great deal of fine craftsmanship on display here, and much to enjoy. The thoughtful lead performances are supported by Annie Yee, very funny as Yachiyo’s blunt best friend; Sab Shimono and Dian Kobayashi are wry and touching as parents with their own unresolved losses. Peter Maradudin’s lighting is another major contributor to an exquisite technical package.