Pirates, Pishkes And ‘Pacific Overtures’


By Masha Leon

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
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“We’re here… to celebrate one of the most powerful and influential groups advocating for women’s health, empowerment, and rights in Asia, Africa and Latin America — the International Women’s Health Coalition,” actress and emcee Kathleen Turner said at its January 11 dinner at Cipriani 42nd Street.

Alluding to the tsunami disaster, Kati Marton, IWHC board chairwoman, said, “Women will be doubly victimized as they have been in so many other crises.” Focusing on the “man-spread catastrophe — AIDS,” Marton cited the “danger zone” of “early marriage,” which is “killing thousands of young women.… A child bride as young as 12-13… controlled by her husband and in-laws… knows little about contraception, sexuality, but is expected to bear children immediately.… We need to hear African and Asian leaders speak out against the prevalent custom of older men marrying — or ‘dating’ — much younger women… AIDS is spread by older promiscuous men [who] infect… young brides and girlfriends.”

Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who, with his wife, fellow Times columnist Sheryl WuDunn, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement — they’re the first and only married couple to win a Pulitzer for journalism — described the devastating impact of a hospital in Brazil where “half was a maternity ward, the other half filled with women victims of botched abortions.” Noting the tens of thousands of women trafficked from Eastern and Southern Europe, Kristof added, “Were it not for the tsunami… the trafficking of children would never have been on the radar screen.”

In her signature black pants suit and a rose silk blouse, keynote speaker Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton touted the IWHC’s agenda: “Women’s reproductive health is pivotal to the health of a nation. When women flourished, families, communities, nations flourished.” Adrienne Germaine, IWHC U.S. president, said, “Day in and day out, we work with national governments, United Nations and other international agencies to ensure that they prioritize women’s health and rights.”

Among the more than 500 IWHC boosters (who raised $1 million that evening) were Marton’s kvelling husband, Richard Holbrooke; Elizabeth and Felix Rohatyn; James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, and his wife, Elaine; Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, and Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

* * *

Now that his critically acclaimed stint as the Major General in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” is history, an out-of-uniform Hal Linden held court last week at a private reception for Jewish National Fund (for which Linden is the spokesperson), hosted by JNF New York Zone President Jerry Berko and his wife, Honie, at their East Side home.

“Did you know that Barney Miller was Jewish?” Linden asked, referring to the detective persona he portrayed on the popular 1975-82 TV series. The program’s memorabilia, Linden informed “is now at the Smithsonian.” Linden recalled a meeting with the series’ producer, who explained, “I wanted to imbue Barney with a sense of talmudic justice.” He spoke of his South Bronx roots: “My mother was culturally kosher; my father a Zionist and founder of B’Nai Zion.… Next to my bed was a bookcase in which my father would leave books for me to read. One had a photo of Theodor Herzl leaning on a bridge… [hoping] that someday there would be a homeland for the Jews… I remember coming home to our railroad flat and [finding] my father in the dining room with tears down his eyes. That was the day Israel was declared a state.”

When asked 12 years ago to represent JNF, Linden said, “All I knew was the ‘little blue pishke,’” a box into which he was taught as a child to put coins and told it would “buy land in Israel.” (My interruption that the correct pronunciation was “pushke” had no impact on Linden, who insisted it was “pishke.”) “What unites us is not religion, culture, nor language… it is Israel.” Linden described some of the agricultural miracles JNF has wrought in Israel’s “future” frontier — the Negev: fish raised in brackish water that is then used to help tomato crops thrive; and the innovative technique of watering strawberries in layers — as water leaks out of the bottom of the first layer, those below are given sustenance. Asked what he is doing next, Linden told the guests: “I keep schlepping around the country” with JNF’s message.

* * *

The 1976 production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Pacific Overtures” offered the exciting spectacle of Commodore Matthew Perry’s ships “sailing” across the stage as he launched his 1853 gunboat diplomacy that fractured Japan’s feudal isolation. Thanks to my mother’s and my seven-month 1941 stay in Japan, made possible by the lifesaving visa issued by Kaunas-based diplomat Chiune Sugihara (against his government’s orders), I am an avid fan of things Japanese — theater, films, art.

In the Roundabout Theatre Company’s current revival of “Overtures” at Studio 54, there are no ships, but we are presented with a bizarre, grotesque 8-foot-tall, wild-eyed Perry and crew, supposedly modeled from the Japanese point of view. What rankled was the agitprop portrayal of the Americans, who, with the laughter-eliciting cartoonish French, German and Russian “delegates,” compete for an economic foothold in Japan. Equally appalling was the intimation of a Hiroshima/Nagasaki-like blast activated by Perry’s flashing eyes without any allusion to Japan’s World War II history, which led to this catastrophe.

Notwithstanding brilliant costumes, innovative staging, poignant songs and silly shtick, this “Overture” is gakkari-shimashita — disappointing. But what really churned my kishkes was the turn-of-the-screw “Gotcha!” finale, with cast members calling out “Toyota! Mitsubishi! Sony!” — iconic names of Japanese companies now dominant worldwide. Hello!… If not for Perry….

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