For a play that intends to promote cross-cultural understanding, “Sake With the Haiku Geisha” gets a lot of things confused. Playwright Randall David Cook draws on his experience as an English teacher in Japan to stage the various misunderstandings between three Westerners (an American, a Brit and a Canadian) and the Japanese people they’re trying to know. We’re obviously meant to learn some lessons in tolerance, but the script’s bias shows right away: There on the side of stage sits a geisha, speaking only in haiku.
The Haiku Geisha (Angela Lin) neither interacts with the characters nor develops one herself. Her job is delivering bits of “wisdom” befitting her status as a wise and unknowable mystery of the East. (One sample: “Winds of autumn blow/An occasion for sake/Drink freely and speak.”)
The prose-speaking Japanese characters are hardly more complex. Much comedy is made out of their mangling of Christmas traditions, their jealousy of the supposedly large Western penis and their daffy take on Hitler.
Yes, in one scene, Canadian Brianna (Fiona Gallagher) pitches a righteous fit when her school uses Hitler as a parade mascot. (“He was a great speaker,” she’s told.) Fortunately, her white wisdom enlightens her colleagues, and they apologize for their ignorance.
If the play were equally patronizing to the West, that exchange might be easier to forgive. After all, Cook does manage some brilliant one-liners, and director Alex Lippard suggests Japanese theater (actors play instruments to underscore dialogue; entrances are made with slow, measured steps) without fetishizing it. But those nice touches can’t dispel the obvious cultural favoritism.
The white characters may adopt some Japanese customs, but they never question their own assumptions the way their Hitler-loving friends are forced to do.
Even a coda about the Geisha’s mother (also played by Lin) doesn’t level the field. How could it, when she ends her story thrilled that her daughter is famous for speaking haiku? Cook uses her to insist that his gimmick is actually an ideal way of life.
Ironically, the actors in Japanese roles bring the most nuance to the material. Ikuma Isaac and David Shih find enough pauses and quick gestures to suggest their collection of teachers, children and sleazy lovers have thoughts outside their dialogue. And Lin gives the Geisha’s mother, a factory worker saddled with an unwanted pregnancy, spunk and backbone when she could have opted for bland passivity.
That choice, sadly, is taken by Jeremy Hollingworth, who ignores the wit in his character Parker, a gay Southerner, and turns him instead into an awkward wallflower. And though Parker is an educated city boy, Hollingworth speaks with the hillbilly twang beloved by those who think all Southerners sound the same.
But his perf does give this production a hint of balance. Since it’s so careless at representing a group of Americans, it allows insensitivity to cross cultural lines.