Well. Let us lay See What I Wanna See etherized upon the table, but before we begin our dissection and analysis, let us meditate upon the things that make Signature great. It is not happenstance which caused Signature to take home nine and a half out of ten Helen Hayes awards for musical productions, plus additional technical awards. Nor, as far as I know, did Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer hold a gun to the collective heads of the Helen Hayes judges. Rather, Signature achieves unparalleled success because it takes unparalleled risks, playing the hell out of flawed or misunderstood pieces and thus surprising us with their beauty and grace. Even when it takes on an acknowledged success, such as the ballyhooed Les Mis, Signature’s work is full of edge and danger. When it produced that volcano of a musical earlier this season, it did so in its 300-seat Max Theater, creating perhaps the most intimate Mis since the actual French revolution.
And so it is with See What I Wanna See, a flawed but beautiful piece by the prodigiously gifted Michael John LaChiusa. It is unclear in its intention and uncertain in its effect, but the lyrics are wonderful and the music is gorgeous, and director Matt Gardiner and his fifty-megawatt cast lay it open before us.
See What I Wanna See derives from three short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (here translated by Takashi Kojima), one of which became the principal story of Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.” The play takes on Akutagawa’s celebrated practice of telling his stories from the widely varied perspective of his different characters, and thus bathes itself in mystery and ambiguity. The first story is about a married woman (Rachel Zampelli) and her lover (Tom Zemon), who meet for their final carnal embrace before one murders the other. But who will be the killer, and who will be the victim? We get different versions at the top of each Act. Neither of these versions, however, addresses the deeper questions, such as why they wish to kill each other, or whether the state of ecstatic detached transport each lover achieves is a product of the act of love or the act of murder.
The second story, which makes up most of the first Act, is the 1951 confession of neighborhood hood Jimmy Maco (Matt Pierson) to his murder of Louie (Zemon) in a vain attempt to win over Louie’s wife, Lily (Zampelli). The problem is that Lily confesses to the same crime, as, through the medium of a medium (Channez McQuay), does the victim himself. None of these confessions are convincing, and the crime – at least for us – remains unsolved.
These stories are less see what I wanna see than say what I wanna say. Only the third story, in the second Act, delivers up the promise of the title. In it, a priest (Bobby Smith) has lost his faith in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attack on New York. He is unable to respond to the great wave of neediness which swells up from the wounded and bewildered populace, and so designs a hoax to mock their desire for certainty and assurance. Like all hoaxsters, he sits in a position of lordly knowledge amidst a sea of ignorance and optimism, and there becomes lonely, so that when his victims (Zemon, Zampelli and Pierson) tell him about their bitter and empty lives, it softens his heart. In the end, the priest becomes a victim – the only victim – of his own hoax, and it restores him to joy.
Except for the last piece, motivation in this play seems as murky as Mark Lanks’ muddy lighting plot. Why would the two lovers want to kill each other? Why would an otherwise robust and successful man commit suicide over the sexual adventures of his wife? Why would three people become involved in a criminal act, and at least two of them falsely confess to guilt in it?
Part of the problem is the enormous disconnect between the culture which produced those stories and contemporary American culture. Akutagawa, a depressive who committed suicide at thirty-five, spent his brief career attempting to describe and revive the honor-drenched society of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Japan. Recontextualizing these stories in circa-1900 Japan, as Akutagawa frequently sought to do, was very difficult. Recontextualizing them in contemporary or near-contemporary America, where self-preservation is the highest goal and suicide is a resort only of the mentally or terminally ill, is nearly impossible.
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But had he succeeded, what a masterpiece LaChiusa would have had, and what a masterwork Signature would have produced! Cool jazz blows in from the tight six-man band (Zak Sandler, Ben Bokor, Dan Sullivan, Dan Hall, Gary Tillman and David Murray) in a way which makes it appear as though it is coming from Adam Koch’s Central-Park-by-Moonlight set. Gardiner moves his excellent cast around the modest confines of the Ark with great facility and economy, and manages to represent a world of movement in a few steps. And who cannot love lyrics like the ones LaChiusa selects when he has one of his lovers describe the ecstasy of either orgasm or murder: “And as I kiss my lover/The room dissolves around me/I desert my body/All of time is gone/Dusk is dawn/Dawn is noon/Late is now/Now is soon/This is what it’s like to be a god.” These lyrics do the difficult work of moving the stories along, as there is very little spoken dialogue.
Matt Pearson’s acting range does not yet extend far enough to permit him to be the charismatic bully he is supposed to be in the first Act, but his voice is beautiful, and some of the other performances are remarkable. Those of you who have seen Bobby Smith only in outlandish comic roles will be reminded of what a fine dramatic actor he is. His priest is a mild man with a core of gall, and Smith’s portrayal of him easily melds the two disparate parts of the man, and is otherwise full of surprises. (Smith does a nice job with a supporting role as a janitor in the first Act as well). Tom Zemon is spot on as Louie: rough, gruff and vulnerable; a shrewd businessman brought down by greed; a loving husband brought down by need.
But the real stunner of the production is Channez McQuay’s second-Act turn as the priest’s aunt, an Italian atheist and doctrinaire Communist. Aunt Monica excoriates the religion-doped populace as she shovels manicotti onto her nephew’s plate, her tough-old-bird persona shielding her quivering heart. LaChiusa reserves some of his best lines for her, and McQuay, like a major league slugger facing a batting-practice pitcher, knocks them out of the park.
Look, See What I Wanna See isn’t perfect, but it’s an interesting work by a major writer produced beautifully by a company which is willing to take risks. And isn’t that what you wanna see?
See What I Wanna See
Book, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, based on short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (translated by Takashi Kojima)
Musical direction by Jon Kalbfleisch
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Produced by Signature
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.