Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Tesshi Nakagawa

Terrific “Gin Game” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

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The husband-and-wife team of Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld shine in “The Gin Game” at Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

When a play being produced locally has a long history of excellence, that can be both a blessing and a curse for a theater company, especially a comparatively small one. On the one hand, the name recognition connected to the play itself has the potential to bring in audience who might not otherwise have come through the doors. On the other hand, the expectation of that audience will be an excellence they remember or have heard of from previous productions (or even televised versions), which may be a tall order to produce.

When those expectations are realized in a positive way, however, it can be a particularly winning moment. Such a win is the production of D.L. Coburn’s 1970s classic, “The Gin Game” at Sierra Madre Playhouse. An articulate, well-known play is produced with great polish and passion. The visuals are evocative. The performers are impressive. The net result is well worth the price of admission.

The story is deceptively simple. Two comparatively active elderly people living in an “old folks home” meet and decide to play gin. The woman – Fonsia – though seemingly retiring, is a wizard at cards. The comparatively overt and opinionated man – Weller – is taken aback, as he considers himself to be excellent at cards as well and has increasing issues with being beaten. Still, they share a common bond of comparatively intact intellect and general dislike of the facility into which they have been relegated. Which will win out, the friction, or the bond?

At SMP the two are played by husband-and-wife team Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld. They have a strong handle on the characters’ foibles, and bring the audience along with both laughter and revelation as they gradually uncover the more lovable and more unlovable elements of each these people. Director Christian Lebano has utilized the SMP space about as well is possible, aided by Tesshi Nakagawa’s extraordinary set.

“The Gin Game” is not new. It was even filmed for television with its original cast, also a married couple, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Still, the performers here do not lean overmuch on previous portrayals, but rather on the words themselves, which become increasingly potent as our nation ages. The play is not, at its core, a comedy though the comedic elements are very funny indeed. It is, rather, a play of awareness. As such, though set quite determinedly in the 1970s (when it was originally produced), it has a wisdom which is totally contemporary.

What: “The Gin Game”  When: through October 6, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors, $25 youth 22 and younger  Info: (626) 355-4318 or


“Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court: The Baggage of Being Foreign


(L to R) Joyce Guy (Abasiama), Omozé Idehenre (Adiaha), Délé Ogundrian (Iniabasi) in “Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court Pasadena [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The topic of immigration is on everyone’s front burner these days, for often very sad reasons. For many, the interest, or the threat, of immigration comes from the effects any group of immigrants at any time have had on what one considers the dominant American culture. It has always been this way, sadly, whether it is disquiet over the Irish, the Chinese, the Eastern European Jews, the Italians or Polish, the Cubans, or the Vietnamese boat people, to name just a few.

Still, there is another aspect to being (as we are, whether we admit it or not) a nation of immigrants: the difference between those who have by practice or generation, regardless of how much they honor their original culture, become Americanized, and those who carry the original culture because it is still theirs. It is this which is explored in Mfoniso Udofia’s  “Her Portmanteau,” now receiving its west coast premiere at Boston Court Pasadena. Here three steps on that assimilation scale look at what is shared, and what separates a “foreigner” from a part of our American ethnocultural tossed salad.

Iniabasi Ekpeyong has just arrived from Nigeria. Though born in the US she has been raised by her late father back on the family compound. Now she is in New York to meet the mother and half sister she hasn’t laid eyes on since childhood. Her mother Abasiama Ufot, and her half-sister Adiaha Ufot are unfamiliar in more ways than one might expect, as language and culture and a disorienting distance between expectation and reality create barriers and end-run openings for the three women.

This work is part of Udofia’s 9-part cycle of plays documenting the Ufot family, but stands well on its own. In it, the entire idea of the US as a paradise is placed up against the friction between traditional family roles and hierarchies, traditional modes of hospitality, even traditional and adapted foods, and how such things can hamper even well-intentioned attempts at understanding. What one runs from and what one runs toward become the ways in which these people balance the bonds of blood and the differences of experience, like a portmanteau, an old fashioned style of suitcase built with two distinct sides one fills separately and then brings together to fasten. Only then do they touch.

Dele Ogundiran is Iniabasi, expecting reunion traditions unfamiliar here, and anxious in many directions at the end of an interminable flight. Watching her severity and fear gradually unbend gives weight and humanity to the awkwardness of difference where one expects to find sameness. Omoze Idehenre, as the American-raised daughter Adiaha, brings to the obligatory balance of inherited traditions and American-centered cultural frameworks a sense of exasperation and kindness which lay the groundwork the play develops. Joyce Guy gives the mother of the two other women, Abasiama, a palpable aura of apology, for distance and for difference, gradually laying out her own burdens, and gradually absorbing those her daughters face.

Director Gregg T. Daniel gives this word-rich play a sense of activity and interwoven characters which keeps it from devolving into a kind of panel discussion. This is particularly important as significant sections of the piece are at least partially in Ibibio, one of Nigeria’s traditional languages which is spoken here laced with occasional English words and phrases. That Iniabasi speaks it as first language, her mother Abasiama can return to it willingly, but – though she understands it well enough – Adiaha chooses to only use English is shorthand for the transitions which are at the core of the play. Daniel makes this work.

A note of praise also for Tesshi Nakagawa’s set design for the cramped Inwood apartment in NYC, for Jeff Gardner’s subtle but essential sound design, and for Erin Walley’s props, so evocative of the cultural interplay so necessary in telling this tale.

Yes, unless you speak Ibibio, you will not understand every word. That is, one assumes, a point – a rich conversation and interaction which is in itself isolating here, though communal somewhere else. Take that in, as part of “Her Portmanteau”: part of what these characters carry with them as they bump into being American.

What: “Her Portmanteau”  When: through June 30, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena  How Much: $20-$39  Info: (626) 683-6801 or

“Nothing is The Same”: Pearl Harbor As Kids Saw It

Tristen Kim (l.), Asia Ring, Yeng Kong Thao as children on Oahu as bombs fall in 1941 in “Nothing is the Same” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Grace Kim]

For the past four years the Sierra Madre Playhouse has expanded their offerings to include a play intended to bring some piece of history, science or culture to school-aged children. In so doing they have hosted over 10,000 school children from 9 school districts. Now the fifth such production has landed on their stages, and it is particularly fine. “Nothing is the Same” by Y York examines the racial tensions of Hawai’i in the first years of World War II through the lens of four Pacific-Asian schoolmates living near Wheeler Air Force Base on the island of Oahu, on and just after December 7, 1941.

Directed by the celebrated Tim Dang, himself originally from Hawaii, the play has a specific ring of authenticity both in the characters created and the atmosphere created around them. Quick (it is only an hour and fifteen minutes long), and specific, “Nothing is the Same” uses a simple setting – the site where children gather to play marbles – to exemplify everything that was questioned, and questionable, about life on the island once the attack had come.

There are two casts which alternate in performance. The “Makai Cast” featured Melvin Biteng is George, a likable Filipino youngster focused mostly on trying to improve his technique enough to win back the marbles he consistently lost in games with his friends. Asia Ring is Bobi, the tomboy Korean girl born in Hawaii – quick to judge, but equally quick to correct herself. Tristen Kim is Daniel, the poorest of the children and Korean by birth, who harbors his family’s dislike for the Japanese based on his own people’s experience. Yeng Kong Thao is Mits, the Japanese marbles champ who attributes his skill to his samurai background until the attack places him as the enemy.

The interplay of the children is all in classic Hawaiian Pidgin English, which has its own musical lilt (the program comes with a glossary), but the themes are distinctly current in feel. The attack turns Mits into the enemy even though he was a friend the day before. As the outgoing boy becomes increasingly frightened and withdrawn, Daniel finds new power as the neighborhood bully, enjoying his suddenly assumed superiority and taking everything he can.

Still, it is Biteng’s George and Ring’s Bobi who center the piece, as they struggle to find their identities in the changing social architecture, and to wrestle with issues of fairness, friendship and what truly makes a hero or a champion in a world torn by war and invaded by masses of gullible new GIs unused to island ways. Indeed, these children, as played by young adults, evoke a genuine quality which makes their struggles easy to empathize with – especially the internal wrestles with the difference between the Japanese person they know and what is being trumpeted by adults regarding who the Japanese are.

A particular nod must go to Kelsey James Kapono Chock, whose insertion of hula movement gives power to several important but otherwise difficult to stage scenes, and whose dialect coaching grounds each character in time and space. Tesshi Nakagawa has painted a set evocative of location and art style of Hawaii in that period. Rod Salasay’s ukulele artistry adds to the sense of place. Still, with minimal props and much use of audience suspension of disbelief, it is the four performers who make this thing work, creating a solid sense of ensemble.

“Nothing is the Same” won the Hawai’i Award for Literature, a testament to its grounding in a sad but important-to-remember truth. To introduce students to another time when children and adults made snap judgments about those around them based on what, rather than who, they were is important in this day, when many do the same to yet another group of neighbors within our communities. Indeed, one cannot think of a time more ripe for making students think outside the superficial judging of people in some way unlike themselves.

The production in Sierra Madre will be enhanced by specific cultural nights focused on the Japanese cultural experience in the San Gabriel Valley, a chance to learn hula, and a collection of mini-workshops on the cultures of the Philippines, Korea and native Hawaiians – helping create further understanding of the cultures represented in the play. Check the theater’s website for more information.

What: “Nothing is the Same” When: Through March 4, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Saturday February 24 and March 3, plus multiple times and dates on school days for invited student groups. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (20 and younger) Info:

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