Thin Veneer 

Fun froth has tragic underlay.

The Teahouse of the August Moon, first staged nearly fifty years ago, defines the term "guilty pleasure." This frothy comedy is set in Okinawa immediately following the Japanese surrender to US forces. It's a sweet little story about bumbling Army guys, wisecracking native interpreters, pretty geisha, and smart villagers who manage to outwit the US Army through the judicious application of awamori (a sweet potato-based sake) and sleight of hand. Seen for what it is -- theatrical Frappuccino -- it's easy to enjoy, especially in a production this lively. Viewed in the light of our highly questionable behavior in Okinawa from March 1945 to the present, Teahouse can seem downright disingenuous.

First, the pleasure. Victor Hugo-quoting, all-thumbs Captain Fisby (a wry Cassidy Brown) is sent to the sleepy village of Tobiki to inflict democracy on the locals. Armed with an interpreter (the absolutely charming Michael Ching), rice rations, and a manual roughly the size of a Manhattan phone book, Fisby isn't prepared for his reception. The villagers are so happy to see him that, along with little gifts of cricket cages and wooden sandals, he ends up with a strong-willed geisha by the name of Lotus Blossom (graceful and tough Willows newcomer Tina Chilip).

All the expected hilarity and cultural misunderstandings ensue -- thankfully, there's an intelligent explanation of the fact that geisha are not prostitutes. Lotus Blossom's presence delays the onslaught of Americanization, as the village women are too distressed by her presence to focus on the Ladies' Democratic League, and the men are too distracted, period. Fisby's superior Colonel Purdy is breathing down his neck for results, and nobody seems interested in building a pentagonal schoolhouse ("We don't have five-sided children," one woman points out).

Fisby fares no better with his attempts to modernize Tobiki by getting the villagers to mass-produce cricket cages and sandals for sale as souvenirs. What the Tobikians really want is a chai-ya, a teahouse, where they can relax after a hard day while enjoying the attentions of beautiful geisha. Fisby gives in, and the villagers discover they can make a tidy profit from bootlegging their homemade awamori to the Army.

Everything is going great until Purdy shows up, convinced that Fisby has lost it entirely and wondering what's happened to the Army psychiatrist sent to evaluate him. But Captain MacLean (sweetly beatific George McRae) has been swiftly seduced by Tobiki's charms and the opportunity to try out his organic farming theories ("When you kill a worm, Colonel," he tells the incredulous Purdy, "you're killing a friend"). It takes more than happy worms to satisfy Purdy. Fisby has failed, Purdy believes, because rather than turning the Tobikians into Americans, he's indulged them in their silly native practices. But the people of Tobiki are Okinawans, long accustomed to foreign occupation, and they have plenty of tricks up their kimono sleeves.

Now for the guilt. The irony is that the US military continues its less-than-charming presence in Okinawa. Beyond the noise and environmental pollution generated by military bases, many Okinawans want us out, as our soldiers have a bad habit of raping local women and getting away with it. My question is this: Was Vern Sneider, who served in the Occupation forces and wrote the novel on which Teahouse is based, really so insensitive to the fact that more than 200,000 Okinawan noncombatants died in the Battle of Okinawa? Was he unaware that thousands of landowners were displaced so that one-fifth of the island's surface and most of its arable land could be turned into US military bases? If he knew these things, this play is either a subversive act meant to make Americans look foolish (at which it succeeds), or the sort of light feel-good comedy so popular in the '50s, featuring lovably clumsy heroes, foolish commanding officers, and exotic natives, all meant to rehumanize Americans after the horrors of the war.

To me, Teahouse teeters on the edge of extreme discomfort, especially if you've seen the movie version with the disturbing sight of Marlon Brando with his eyes taped to look Asian. In the original script, Lotus Blossom refers to Fisby as "Master," and there are some bits that were probably much funnier fifty years ago. Happily, director Richard Elliott made some discreet changes and cast Japanese-American actors. While the play is still dated, its essential charm comes through strongly here, and the story of how the people of a tiny Okinawan village survive a well-meaning if boneheaded American attempt to "civilize" them is both very funny and incisive.

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