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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 5, 2010

'Judith' a coup for UH, window into playwright

Special to The Advertiser


7:30 p.m. May 21-22; 2 p.m. May 23

University of Hawai'i-Mānoa Kennedy Theatre




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Bertolt Brecht's "The Judith of Shimoda" followed a twisted path on its way to its English-language world premiere at the University of Hawai'i Kennedy Theatre.

Written in 1940 during his exile in Finland and adapted from an earlier Japanese play, the script was lost, rediscovered and passed through various translations until reaching its current English version by UH staffer Markus Wessendorf. This comes only two years after its German-language world premiere.

The production is a coup for the University of Hawai'i and kicks off a symposium of the International Brecht Society and a month of related lectures and theater productions. It's not, however, a casual evening, as Brecht held clear disdain for audiences of naive fun-seekers. Expect, instead, political argument and a production style that holds its audience at arm's length to continually remind us that we're in a theater.

The plot also offers layers of commentary. Set during the 1854 opening of Japan to the West, it is driven by Brecht's abhorrence of Nazi Germany. Drawing on the biblical story of Judith, who charmed an enemy general and then beheaded him, it offers a jaded view of the disposable nature of social heroes.

Directed by Paul Mitri, the production splits neatly into two distinct halves. Act One is the less interesting and visually static political argument, culminating in the heroine's consent to save her city of Shimoda from bombardment by becoming consort to the American consul.

Act Two exposes the consequences of her heroism, as citizens deride her as "the white man's whore" and she sinks into alcoholism and poverty illustrating Brecht's thesis that our heroes eventually become tiresome and embarrassing. Mitri also gives the staging a lift by taking it literally up into the air on scaffolds and swags of bright red yardage.

Borrowing from circus aerial acts, the heroine and others climb up these bolts of fabric and deliver lines dangling high above the stage. The final image of the dead heroine hanging upside down by her ankles makes the device pay off dramatically.

That approach also creates a tour de force for D'neka Patten in the title role of the geisha, Okichi. Vocally and physically demanding, the part becomes a virtual punching bag for manipulation, disdain and violence. Patten conquers it with power and stamina, while serving Brecht's dictum that her character must never become emotionally accessible.

The opening act on the UH double bill is "Mahagonny Songspiel" by Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, whose "Threepenny Opera" opens later this month at Army Community Theater. A collaboration with Hawaii Opera Theatre and directed by Henry Akina, the short operatic work in German and English explores decadence and decay within a fictional city. Six singers and projected lyrics make it easy to follow its musical and political themes.

Joseph T. Rozmiarek has been reviewing theater performances in Hawai'i since 1973.