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‘Gonza the Lancer,’ A Japanese Play, Opens Off-Broadway

October 24, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Imagine a mixture of ″Father Knows Best,″ ″The Seven Samurai″ and a bit of ″Blue Velvet″ and you may have some idea of what director David Greenspan has done in ″Gonza the Lancer.″

The early 18th-century play, which opened Tuesday at the New York Shakespeare Festival, was written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon who is often called ″the Japanese Shakespeare.″

But Chikamatsu might have a hard time recognizing his bloody tale of domestic tragedy transposed to a 1950s never-never land where the characters dress like Ozzie and Harriet but engage in enough sex and violence to put David Lynch to shame.

Greenspan is one of three young directors given producer Joseph Papp’s blessing this year at the Public Theater. They have been allowed to create their own seasons of plays, and Greenspan has started with this rarely produced work.

The evening starts on a wildly self-indulgent note when the director himself steps forward to babble a prologue he wrote in 1982 called ″The Long Flat Plane.″ Greenspan loses a good deal of the audience with this existential hooey about the meaning of life and where we are in relationship to it.

Once it’s out of the way, the play can begin. There’s a narrator, here played by two different actors, one for each act. Greenspan borrows freely - and often to good effect - from story theater as well as Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theater Company.

When Gonza gets on a horse to ride, actor Koji Okamura mounts a metal stool. When the heroine’s little children appear, they are doll-like puppets carried by other performers. And there is some gender-bending in the casting, with several male actors playing female characters and women cast in men’s roles.

Actor Tim Perez - looking uncomfortably like Harvey Fierstein in drag - dons a babushka, a floral print blouse and purple slacks to play a governess. Actress Fanni Green sports a mustache to portray a warlord.

On a mostly bare stage, Greenspan gets most of his laughs out of his props. There are some amusing 1950s artifacts - a pink vacuum sweeper being among the more interesting.

The acting is rudimentary, but at least Mary Shultz, who projects a Marilyn Monroe sultriness, manages to convey some emotion as the doomed Osai. The rest of the cast seem like stick figures.

The production’s oddness doesn’t necessarily make the evening any more interesting. In fact, that’s all you remember. This version of ″Gonza the Lancer″ sticks in the memory more for its weirdness than anything Greenspan and company have to say about the play.

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