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On Theater: 'Fish' not quite ready to be consumed

On Theater: 'Fish' not quite ready to be consumed
Eddie Mui and Sab Shimono in South Coast Repertory's 2015 world premiere of "tokyo fish story." (Debora Robinson, HB Independent)

If you're a connoisseur of Japanese seafood, particularly sushi, you might find South Coast Repertory's latest world premiere somewhat tasty, once you get beyond the ennui created by the meticulous preparation of fish as a theatrical device.

It's called "tokyo fish story" — that's right, all lower case, including the name of the Japanese capital city in which the action (if that isn't too strong a word) takes place. A glance at playwright Kimber Lee's bio in the program reveals a few other plays under her authorship identified in the same style, as though she'd broken the shift key on her computer. Hey, it worked for e.e. cummings.

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The story is so simplistic as to be disarming. Kitchen workers at a Tokyo sushi restaurant strive for excellence while a new rival business across the street fills its dining area by offering free appetizers and other discounts. At this eatery, tradition prevails and the generation gap is cavernous.

Chief cook Takashi (Ryun Yu) and his younger, streetwise apprentice, Nobu (Lawrence Kao), meticulously prepare their fish as Nobu strives to learn more about the inscrutable and long-tenured Takashi, whom he hopes eventually to replace. That won't happen until the aging patriarch of the restaurant, Koji (Sab Shimono), dies or retires.

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Poignant plot points crop up at occasional intervals, while other attention-diverting moments (red herrings, perhaps) come and go with little or no explanation. Playwright Lee has the genesis of an interesting story here, but more cohesive presentation is required.

The most impressive performance is delivered by Yu, whose character has labored in the fish restaurant for most of his adult life (he's now 39). It's revealed that he once spent a year in the United States, but quickly returned when his mentor, Koji, became ill. Yu conveys volumes without exerting himself.

The exertion is handled by his trainee, Kao, whose street slang and rap talk provide a contrast to Takashi's smooth maturity. His is a vibrant portrayal, though it tends to come off as caricature, even based, as it is, on the growing hip-hop culture among the younger Japanese.

Authenticity abounds in the performance of Shimono as the respected but somewhat doddering elder statesman of the eatery, Koji. His knowledge of fish is without peer, even as he moves shakily into his dotage. His final scene will both surprise and delight playgoers.

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Two other performers in the show handle multiple characters. Eddie Mui takes on a half-dozen of them, ranging from an ineffective employee to a shady recruiter for the new sushi restaurant.

The other supernumerary (emphasis on "super") is Jully Lee, an exotic young lady who plays both a sarcastic job-seeking woman and an eerie creature who seemingly summons Koji to the great beyond. The gorgeous, reed-thin Lee is a standout despite her scarcity of dialogue.

Neil Patel's setting covers a multitude of playing areas, including a realistic-appearing kitchen and an elevated bikeway on which Koji pedals to obtain his daily supply of only the best fish from the harbor. It's nicely augmented by Elizabeth Harper's lighting design and Christina Haataien-Jones' costumes.

South Coast Repertory has lifted the curtain on many world premieres in recent years, and some — like Theresa Rebeck's "Zealot" — have been highly impressive. "tokyo fish story," however, requires a bit more seasoning with, perhaps, a more pronounced emphasis on the Japanese generation gap, before it's ready for consumption.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "tokyo fish story"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Blvd., Costa Mesa

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When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 29 (no evening show on March 29)

Cost: Starts at $22

Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org

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