Programs rustle, the lights dim; there is that familiar plea for us to silence cellphones; an expectant hush settles over the crowd as attentions gather together in the darkness. We theatergoers miss that feeling. While large indoor gatherings remain limited, here are some theatrical audiobooks to help tide you over until the curtain rises on live theater again.
Local radio listeners are already familiar with L.A. Theatre Works (LATW), which airs each Saturday night at 10 p.m. on KUOW. Producing audio theater over four decades, LATW has amassed a catalog of more than 500 recordings, ranging from Shakespeare and Shaw to J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo” and Charles Busch’s camp extravaganza “Die, Momma, Die!” Like Seattle’s own beloved Book-It Repertory Theatre (which has itself branched out into some inspired audio productions during the pandemic), LATW has staged many literary works over the years. Their latest is of special interest to Seattle listeners: Ken Narasaki’s 2010 stage adaptation of John Okada’s visceral 1957 novel of postwar alienation, “No-No Boy.”
Starring as the tormented draft-resister hero Ichiro Yamada, actor Greg Watanabe leads a talented cast in this morally complex story that delves into the conflicting loyalties and identities of first- and second-generation Japanese Americans, huddled into incarceration camps and then compelled to take up arms in service of their persecutors. It is a raw and passionate performance, although those familiar with the book may find themselves brought up short by the play’s controversial ending, which markedly softens the book’s devastating final chapter. Fortunately for listeners, there is also now a full-length audiobook of the original novel that captures the shocking impact of “No-No Boy,” undiminished. David Shih convincingly takes us inside Ichiro’s conflicted thoughts, while Ruth Ozeki’s moving introduction provides the perfect encomium for this long-neglected classic. Listen to both the novel and the play, for a critical perspective on the artistic trade-offs of adapting jarring fiction into satisfying theater.
Three other recent LATW productions also explore facets of the Japanese American experience during World War II, including another title with local interest: Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths,” which dramatizes the odyssey of real life Seattle conscientious objector Gordon Hirabayashi. Ryun Yu gives a charismatic performance as the daring, idealistic young man whose refusal to forfeit his constitutional rights led to a 40-year court battle, ending with vindication in the U.S. Supreme Court alongside fellow objectors Minoru Yasui and Fred T. Korematsu. Sakata’s latest play for LATW, “For Us All,” presents an in-depth look at these landmark court cases, centering on the reluctant champion Korematsu and the dedicated young lawyers and researchers who succeeded against the odds in reopening his case. Dramatizing legal research is a heavy lift, but the playwright herself takes a memorable turn as Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, whose tireless work uncovered key documents that would force the U.S. government to admit to its moral and legal culpability.
Rounding out this audio theater festival is a beautifully realized production of Philip Kan Gotanda’s “The Sisters Matsumoto,” the story of a once-proud family’s rocky return home from a detention camp to what’s left of their farm in Stockton, California. The play premiered at the Seattle Rep back in 1999, and the poignancy and humor of this vibrant production make it easy to see why it has enjoyed frequent revivals ever since. Each of these LATW productions includes additional interviews with the creators and history makers behind the plays.
For those looking to peer behind the curtain, James Lapine’s new oral history “Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created ‘Sunday in the Park with George’” offers an enthralling immersion into the creative maelstrom at the heart of a Pulitzer-Prize winning Broadway show. Lapine captures the exciting, seat-of-the-pants nature of this risky collaborative process with interviews of dozens of contributing artists, punctuated with music. In a bit of inspired casting, Sondheim himself is voiced by his frequent leading man, Len Cariou.
Another audiobook that onetime and future theatergoers are sure to relish is John Lithgow’s 2011 memoir, “Drama: An Actor’s Education.” Himself the son of a struggling theater impresario, Lithgow recounts with humor, pathos and charming candor the struggles, foibles and triumphs of a life in the theater. Entertaining anecdotes and a bit of Hollywood dish are grounded by the author’s persistent focus on the art and craft of storytelling, Lithgow’s own mastery of which is made manifest in his own flawless, engrossing narration.