I had the great pleasure of going along to the first of two fundraising nights on Saturday to assist the cast and crew of this play get to New York for the Fringe festival there.
Not only did I see the play, enjoy wine and supper, and have some great conversations, the evening’s entertainment commenced with a cabaret of some nine songs. Performed by two of the cast members – the fabulously talented Rhoda Lopez and Ian Toyne - this was a highlight in itself.
Rhoda kicked off proceedings with three songs from her tour de force performance as Edith Piaf in Madame Piaf with a lovely acknowledgement to the writer-director Stephen Lee who was in the audience. Toyne added two Frank Sinatra classics to make no doubt New York was on everyone’s mind and they shared a couple of duets – Cole Porter’s Night and Day and Somewhere from West Side Story. Rhoda also gave a wonderful rendition of Someone To Watch Over Me which was greeted with a simple “Beautiful” from an audience member in the row behind me. There was no chance of any disagreement on that score.
What a way to start! Another glass of wine at intermission and everyone settled in for the play itself which has been invited to New York’s Fringe…
“The Boss is always right.”
A phrase repeated throughout this play about Jewish refugees stranded in Lithuania during the Second World War and the Japanese diplomat who helped save thousands of them. Based on a true story, writer Shirley Van Sanden has crafted what the cast announce at the very beginning is a ‘fable and a fairytale’ and it is presented as such with various storytelling devices. There are three large, white screens at the back of the stage with two in the wings on a 45 degree angle. The three main screens are used to project various images onto but also show silhouetted action of the actors in crucial moments, notably acts of violence. Then there is the use of a puppet to represent The Boss himself and another that is a feisty dog which is part of an actual puppet show in the story. Throw in the use of origami, various other props from a Katana to a baseball bat and ball, and the recurring appearance of a bird both projected and on a stick wielded by the writer herself, and this is an inventive piece of storytelling. It did take me a little while to get into its rhythms and highly stylised and episodic nature but once onboard it proves highly rewarding.
But back to that statement:
“The Boss is always right.”
Easy to disagree with in this day and age, not so easy at a time of war when your boss is in the Japanese Foreign Ministry and you are a junior diplomat who has been reassigned after speaking out about the treatment of the local population during your posting in Manchuria. This is Yoshida (Brian Liau) who has a love of baseball and adheres to the seven virtues of Bushido, the Samurai’s code. He is The Warrior to Rhoda Lopez’s Anna, a Polish child and The Princess, who witnessed her mother’s death at the hands of the Nazis and flees to Lithuania with her Uncle, Jacob (Ian Toyne) where they are taken in by his sister (Monica Main). There they set up a puppet theatre but this is burnt down when the Soviets take control of Lithuania and the Jewish refugees are under even more threat. Yoshida had spotted Anna throwing a baseball and befriended her as she could make a great pitcher for the refugee team he coaches. As things become bleak, Jacob in desperation approaches Yoshida to help obtain transit visas so they can leave the country. Yoshida, with the assistance of his German assistant, Johanna, eventually disobeys The Boss and end up issuing more visas than is authorised. Jacob and Anna escape while Yoshida is summoned to Berlin for re-assignment and eventually ends up in an internment camp.
The acting is excellent across the board with Brian Liau very strong as the conflicted Yoshida who eventually decides to do what is right rather than follow orders. But we also see episodes from earlier in his life – the falling out with his father who wanted him to be a doctor; how he met The Boss whilst a waiter in a restaurant; the incident in Manchuria – which allows Liau plenty of latitude to give depth to his character. Lopez is excellent as the traumatised Anna who also finds a childlike joy in the puppet show and hitting a home run - the true innocent in a time of turmoil and unimaginable suffering. Toyne shines as Jacob who is determined to make life as tolerable as possible for his niece and pleads with Yoshida to help them and the others escape. He also has an amusing turn controlling the dog in the puppet show and plays a Dutch diplomat who is the catalyst for the idea regarding the visas. Finally, Main plays the ‘stern’ Johanna with a deft touch adding most of the humour to proceedings.
I say finally but a key component is the keyboard work of Mark Turton who adds mood and atmosphere throughout. One impressive sequence is the communiques between Yoshida and Tokyo which is a combination of keyboard effects, puppetry and the use of origami. Creative and telling.
There is a lovely coda at the end which brings all the threads together as a grown up Anna seeks out the elderly Yoshida and tells him of all the good his sacrifice accomplished.
This is a creative mix of elements that shines a light on a little known story that celebrates the ability of one person to affect the lives of literally thousands by choosing to do the right thing at great personal risk in a time of horror and war.
The final fundraiser is on tonight, Sunday the 1st June, and is well worth braving the football crowds to attend. A terrific night’s entertainment.