Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a captivating childhood romance clothed in historical narrative, tragic but ultimately hopeful. Book-It Repertory Theatre, known for its page-to-stage adaptations, chose this best-selling novel as the first production in its 2012-2013 season. Book-It's format demands that actors break the fourth wall to deliver voiceover-style passages directly to the audience, remaining faithful to the language of the author—a technique that proves both dynamic and cumbersome.
The story centers on a 12-year-old Chinese boy named Henry Lee (Jose Abaoag) and his Japanese paramour Keiko Okabe (Stephanie Kim), who discover a forbidden love in Seattle's International district during the volatile, discriminatory climate of WWII internment. After losing touch with Keiko when the Idaho-based Minidoka internment camp closes and living out the majority of his life with a different woman, Henry returns to the dusty basement of the Panama Hotel to unearth some painful memories. The hotel—still standing today in the ID—serves as a time capsule for the artifacts of his severed relationship with Keiko. After rummaging through its stashed antiques, an aged Henry must decide whether it’s too late to recapture the innocence of adolescent love.
Scenic designer Carey Wong transports the audience between bleak prison camps and colorful Asian neighborhoods by way of six hanging, reversible panels that feature blown-up historical photographs. Combined with clever moments of choreography—bumpy truck rides to the misnamed Camp Harmony and a frantic red-wagon chase scene—this design is a passport to move fluidly from a diverse urban community to an arid sepia-colored countryside. The most powerful image of all is young Keiko and Henry leaning between the twisted strands of a barbed wire fence to share their first kiss.
Book-It's prose-to-play format creates several problems. Many of the novel’s archetypes come off as one-dimensional stereotypes when translated to the stage, diminishing very complicated subject matter. The quintessential privileged white bullies from the Rainier prep school have little character depth; their disingenuous portrayals disconnect the literary material from the stage performance. Mr. Lee (Stephen Sumida) is the inscrutable, uncompromising, and dishonored Asian father; Mrs. Beatty (Marianne Owen) the strong-willed mess-hall-cook who gets things done; and Sheldon (Marcel Davis) the optimistic, soulful, and parental African-American jazz musician. All three actors give notable performances despite character limitations.
Both Moses Yim as Marty Lee and Sydney Andrews as his fiancé Samantha give fine performances in largely unnecessary roles. In the literary version, their trouble-free relationship might serve as a commentary on the nature of interracial progress and personal regret, but here it's only a distraction. Strange, artificial moments arise when adult figures spew obvious exposition to children without so much as a hello and when an entire Cantonese-to-English translation scene goes on only in English.
But the central triad of actors is enchanting. Young Henry is the dormant hero in an awkward and unlikely frame and young Keiko is his compelling call to bravery. The quiet and mysterious demeanor of the aged Henry (Stan Asis) is the tenuous thread upon which the entire story dangles. Only he can overcome the regrettable circumstances of our personal and collective history. Only he can decide whether hope remains for the child in us all.