As soon as I walked in and saw the set for Fire in the New World I just knew I was going to love this show. Sometimes first impressions are off. I love the feel of a Noir film, I love a mystery and I don’t mind if either of those contain a healthy amount of humor. This World Premiere production by Full Circle Theater at Park Square in St. Paul get’s one of those right – the look. In most every other aspect the production is flawed. It isn’t without any redeeming qualities (did I mention the set design?) There are a couple of performances I really liked and I learned some history as well, and learning something is always worthwhile. But I cannot recommend this show when there are so many other great shows currently playing that also have great production design and teach you some history (See instead Sally & Tom at guthrie Theater or Six at the Ordway). There’s a positive message and story being told, but it’s just not being told very well.
The main character is Sam Shikaze, a Japanese-Canadian private detective who is asked by his neighbors and friends in Vancouver’s Japantown to look into rumors that business Tycoon Roderic Alexander is trying to buy up all of their property and businesses on Powell Street. At one point in the play for a brief moment I wondered if he was somehow planning to destroy toontown. He’s also hired by Alexander to find his wife Yumiko who disappeared a couple of days ago. There’s arson and racetrack bets, an old feud between Sam and Kenji, a copper who seems to be on Alexander’s payroll. Look, the mystery all ties up at the end but, after Park Square’s ingenious Holmes and Watson script last summer by Jeffrey Hatcher, this is just too by the numbers and derivative. I had a theory that perhaps the script wasn’t the issue, it was that the director didn’t know how to get the playwrights tone across. Then I read that it’s directed by the plays author, R. A. Shiomi. There is an admirable social message and history lesson at the heart of the play, but you have to also engage the audience. This is supposed to be a mystery comedy in the noir style and it doesn’t succeed in either category, thus making the social and historical message feel like a lesson rather than subtext that enriches and informs the story.
Here are the issues. The play runs two hours 20 minutes with an intermission. This should run 85 minutes with no intermission and you could do it with minimal cuts. The script feels like it’s being played at 2/3rds speed, when what you need with a lean mean noir style play is to run it at 4/3rds speed. The pacing is way off. For example, there are a couple of flirtatious scenes between Sam and Yumiko that should be rat-a-tat-tat. Instead it’s performed as if the actors are trying to remember their lines as they say them and then the response comes not overlapping but after a long pause. Gregory Yang’s Sam has a habit of saying “eh” after every other line. I was halfway through the first act before I realized it was because he’s Canadian. This is where I thought, oh the director doesn’t know that Sam should be playing this with a canadian accent, as that might add some much needed humor to the show. But again the director is the writer, so that couldn’t have been the intention, or Yang made the choice and refused to be directed. What could work as a comedic element instead comes off as if Sam is slow witted. The performance simply does not work.
What does work? I liked the performances of Anna Hashizume as Yumiko and Alice McGlave as Rosie who runs the diner where Sam and his partner eat every meal. I also enjoyed Brian Joyce as Sam’s partner Jonathan Webster. The set design by Joe Stanley is another in a long line of impressive sets from Park Square in the last year. The design divides the stage into three locations: a city street, Sam’s office, and Rosie’s Diner. I loved the street with its brick walls and litter strewn gutters and Sam’s office looks like it popped right out of an old Philip Marlowe film. The lighting design by Karin Olson also greatly contributes to what I would call a superior looking production. Unfortunately while it looked good, it didn’t sound good. The sound design by Quinci Bachman is filled with incidental music that just seems to drone on and then cut in and out randomly. Though the combination of the sound design and lighting that is used to portray a fire starting up was very effective. The costumes by Khamphian Vang were decidedly hit and miss. I like Yumiko’s costumes and the trenchcoats were good, but Sam’s suit in particular was ill fitting and mismatched.
Fire in the New World runs through November 6th, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://parksquaretheatre.org/box-office/shows/2022-2023/fire-in-the-new-world/
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