See What I Wanna See’ May Leave Some Viewers Wanting
The soul-bruised characters that inhabit the riveting final act of Signature Theatre’s “See What I Wanna See” gamely revive a three-part play that limps to the midway point.
The thematically ambitious but aesthetically spare musical production, based on short works by the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, aims to challenge our conceptions of lust and violence, faith and redemption. At times, it succeeds. At others, it confounds.
The show, written by Michael John LaChiusa, comes to Washington widely hailed for its production in New York. It was named one of the best musicals of 2005 by New York Magazine and also nominated for nine Drama Desk Awards that year, including Best Musical.
“See What I Wanna See” at Signature opens with the brief but risqué “Kesa and Morito,” in which two medieval Japanese characters celebrate and lament — in song and lascivious motion — their illicit love affair. The episode is oddly compelling but self-consciously lacking in heat. The duo reappears toward the end of the play in a segment that mirrors nearly exactly the first.
After “Kesa and Morito” open the play, we’re onto the central story, “R Shomon,” the inspiration for the classic film “Rashomon.” Set in 1950s New York City, this segment of the play is action-packed, containing scenes of boozing, assault, rape and murder. Meanwhile offstage, Jon Kalbfleisch directs a crack chamber orchestra whose swinging jazz and blues score consistently enhances the action on stage.
Tom Zemon plays a husband who owns a taxicab company. Rachel Zampelli is his sultry wife, and Matt Pearson is the petty-turned-violent criminal with designs on the man’s wife and wallet. Pearson has an engaging stage presence, and though his lines are a little hammy, even clichéd, he delivers them with easy aplomb.
Zampelli plays the sexy former lounge singer turned businessman’s wife convincingly. A scene in which she dresses down her husband after he’s attacked by Pearson would make any man wince because you know she means it. But while Zampelli’s voice is pretty and clear, her singing lacks the smoky anguish you’d expect from her world-weary character.
Meanwhile, Zemon’s cocky businessman laments ever marrying the woman. “My mother was wrong when she said I’d regret marrying a cheap lounge act the rest of my life,” he spits. “I’ll regret it the rest of my death.”
Throughout the set, we hear contradictory testimony about what actually happened that night. But the answer, like the set itself, leaves the audience unsure — and a bit cold.
Much more emotional resonance is attained in “Gloryday,” the play’s final story. It opens with the excellent Bobby Smith, who plays a disillusioned priest trying to make sense of his faith in the aftermath of a disaster (we presume 9/11).
“When the smoke finally cleared, my faith in God also disappeared,” he proclaims. “I let go of hope and that’s how I cope.”
Meanwhile, a chorus of tortured voices fills the stage. “There can’t be a God,” one proclaims.” “She was only 9 years old,” proclaims another.
Perhaps tired of people coming to him for answers, the priest plays a cynical practical joke on New York, posting a notice in Central Park that a miracle (the coming of Jesus Christ) is expected in that very spot on a specific Tuesday.
The people take him at his word, flocking to the spot in the hopes that their despair can be lifted. Zampelli, the wife in “R Shomon,” here plays an aspiring, self-centered actress who is miserable despite her fairly glamorous life in California. When she’s not racing through the Hollywood Hills in her boyfriend’s convertible Jaguar, she’s numbing herself with drugs, alcohol and random sex. In a heartbreaking burst of self-awareness, she admits to the priest that she “could use some help.”
But Channez McQuay steals the show with her turn as the priest’s loving, but cynical Aunt Monica. Constantly challenging, Aunt Monica tries to convince her nephew that religion is “The Greatest Practical Joke of All.”
McQuay’s blast of skeptical humor — paired with her competent singing — is perhaps the most satisfying part of the entire play. Though she regrets her nephew’s choice of vocation, she never condemns him for it and even turns tender when she realizes that his own unrelenting faith has been shaken to its core.
Zemon, the husband in “R Shomon,” portrays a distraught accountant who tears his suit to shreds and lives in the park in anticipation of the miracle — also offering up a strong performance. His anguish when he realizes the prank is, in fact, a prank is palpable.
Michael John LaChiusa’s “See What I Wanna See” offers a somewhat disjointed but at-times illuminating look at human emotion. Signature’s strong cast and acting — especially during the final act – go a long way toward helping the audience see what LaChiusa wants us to see.
“See What I Wanna See” runs through May 31 at the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. Tickets are to . For more information, please call (703) 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.