“Hel-lo… It’s the 14th Century!” an exasperated Aiko Matsuda reminds her ne’er-do-well son Kai, invisible phone receiver to her ear, in Paul Kikuchi’s World Premiere screwball comedy Slice, and she’s not kidding. It really is the Age Of The Samurai in Japan, and 20something Kai can’t seem to get with the program. Mom is still waiting for Kai to throw out the trash, “which I asked you to do three days ago,” but Kai would rather while away the hours designing the world’s greatest sword, one which Lord Ito is bound to love … which will mean he’ll endorse it … which will mean that every samurai will want one! “It’s my duty as your mother to give you a sanity check,” declares Aiko in no uncertain terms. “Are you an idiot?!”

If this all sounds too sitcom silly for words, then you should probably skip Slice and opt for whatever Noël Coward revival might be playing locally. If, on the other hand, you simply want to spend a laugh-filled seventy minutes being entertained by a castful of zanies as seen through the eyes of a Japanese-American Mel Brooks, then check out the latest from the playwright who brought us Ixnay and Wrinkles. (Kikuchi does like those one-word titles.)

The 9-to-5 that Kai has been shirking much to Mama Aiko’s consternation is that of samurai equipment/armor repairman. Clearly sonny boy has not been inspired by Aiko’s dedication to her own job as house mother at Lord Ito’s favorite geisha house.

As for said Lord, he’s currently out on a neighborhood stroll with new bodyguard Tashiro, a not terribly threatening-looking buzz-cutted gent whose business it is to keep a notebook in which he jots down everything that happens around him, and from which it is his duty is to issue citations, more often than not to himself.

Lord Ito’s arrival at Aiko’s geisha house proves the perfect opportunity for Kai to show off the sword he’s been confectioning, a weapon which Lord Ito quickly dismisses with an “It reminds me of my mother’s ginsu knives” and the advice: “You should have known better than to do something on spec.”

Well, if this sword isn’t to Lord Ito’s liking, then at least there are still two weeks remaining for Kai to enter a different saber in the sword-making contest. After considerable negotiating, Kai makes a deal with Aiko to give 10 days to design his sword. After all, once his sword is finished, it’s bound to cause “Super Sword Mania” throughout the land.

Kai has no sooner finished his Sword To End All Swords when who should show up out of the blue but the beautiful young Fumi Tanaka, whom Aiko has hired to help with Kai’s samurai equipment repair. Kai is, not surprisingly, peeved at having to take on an assistant, but Fumi insists she has experience and accomplishes her first repair job in seconds flat.

Not only do Kai and Fumi take an instant dislike to each other in classic romcom fashion, Fumi’s reaction when she sees Kai’s sword is dismissive: “It doesn’t give off that bow-chicka-wow-wow vibe,” she declares.

Nor is Lord Ito at all pleased with Kai’s sword, one which fails its “test drive” by breaking in half after a simple fall onto the grass. On a brighter note, Lord Ito’s visit to Aiko’s and Kai’s isn’t completely in vain since the real reason he’s stopped by is to drop off a Wanted poster for Aiko to hang on the wall, one glance at which gives both Aiko and Kai a start. The wanted woman is none other than their new employee Fumi!

It must be clear by now that playwright Kikuchi isn’t attempting Great Art in Slice. He does, however, know how to keep the laughs coming one after another, one of Slice’s best running jokes being its 14th Century characters’ use of 21st Century sitcom slang.

“Mom! Sidebar please.” “Mom, what are you smoking?” “Mom, you’re throwing me a curve!” are just three of the lines that might only generate a chuckle or two were this a contemporary sitcom, but hearing them come from the mouths of kimono-garbed characters living seven centuries back ends up considerably more rib-tickling.

A number of running jokes generate repeat laughter—bodyguard Tashiro’s girly-girl fear of rats, his oft-repeated pet phrase “I shall write myself a citation,” and some terrific sound effects as Fumi’s armor repairs are executed offstage in mere seconds.

There’s also plenty of physical comedy, as when Kai accuses Tashiro of “sword envy” and Tashiro responds with a titty twister, or Lord Ito’s climactic swordfight with Lord Watanabe choreographed entirely for laughs by Francois Chou, Ron Balicki, and Diana Lee Inosanto, all of the above helping to make make Slice an enjoyable theater outing for kids and oldsters alike.

 Of course all this might fall flat without the lickety-split, razor-sharp timing that is one of the requisites of screwball comedy and one which Slice’s crackerjack cast (Scott Keiji Takeda as Kai, Emily Kuroda as Aiko, Elizabeth Ho as Fumi, Mike Hagiwara as Lord Ito, and Aaron Takahashi as both Tashiro and Lord Watanabe) execute with flying colors under Jeff Liu’s lively direction.

Hagiwara, Ho, Kikuchi, Kuroda, Liu, Takahashi, and Takeda are all familiar names and faces to regulars at Little Tokyo’s East West Players, and it’s a pleasure to see their work on the considerably more intimate stage of South Pasadena’s delightful Fremont Centre Theatre. The boyish spunk Takeda gives Kai and the feisty, sexy bow-chicka-wow-wow Ho gives Fumi are just two reasons to appreciate this Metamorphosis Theatre production, as are the rich resonant voice Hagiwara gives Lord Ito and the quintessentially maternal frustration Kuroda gives Akio. As for Takahashi, someone give this Japanese-American Charlie Brown his own TV sitcom.

Marie Miller’s set nicely recreates a 14th Century Japanese abode on a budget, one lit expertly by Henry Lee, with a special tip of the hat to both designers for the play’s change of scene to an outdoor glen. Nicholas Hirata’s costumes have the authentic period look that makes Kikuchi’s modern dialog all the funnier. Yuki Izumiharam has designed some effective 14th Century props, and David Kikuchi the play’s geta and wheelbarrow. Dennis Yen gets top marks for Slice’s era-setting flute soundtrack and for the cartoon-ready sound effects that accompany each of Fumi’s rapid-fire repairs.

Jim Niedzialkowski is stage manager and light board operator, Megan Duquette assistant stage manager and sound board operator, and Ryan Wilkins assistant director.

 At a mere seventy minutes, Slice may be a tad short for “an evening of theater,” but it knows well the truth of the axiom never to overstay one’s welcome. Slice may not be Shakespeare, Shaw, or Moliere, but it deserves a citation … for inspired 14th Century Japanese silliness and fun.

Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
October 20, 2012
Photos: Tina Tong

Comments are closed.