Director Diane Paulus helmed two extended runs at the Vineyard Theatre with Eli's Comin' and Brutal Imagination. Now it's her self-penned and directed Swimming With Watermelons that the company hopes will be a similar hit.
The play with music, written with husband Randy Weiner, opens its Off-Broadway debut at the Vineyard April 11 in a co production with Music-Theatre Group (You Don't Miss the Water, America Dreaming).
Swimming With Watermelons features Emily Hellstrom, Rachel Benbow Murdy, Jordin Ruderman and Anna Wilson. The four actresses play a multitude of roles, including American, German and Japanese women as well as American soldiers.
Swimming With Watermelons takes place during the American occupation of Japan, when wartime threw GIs and girls (and Paulus' own parents) together. Interpolating some 20 recorded songs from the 1940s ("Night and Day," "Stormy Weather" and "I Could Write a Book"), Watermelons traces several relationships including that of Tomoko, a bright young Japanese girl with her soldier-lover; an army camp librarian, whose family happens to be German, and the Jewish journalist she loves; and a West Virginia woman who starts to lose her husband to a seductive Pan Pan girl named Yuki.
The central story, however, belongs to Paulus' parents who met in occupied Japan. Her 18-year-old Japanese mother was working in a department store at that time because her college had burned down during the fighting. "Then, in walks my father," Paulus told Playbill On-Line. "She had a bandage on her finger and he came up to her and said, 'Ouchie ouchie' and they started talking. In the early occupation, there were anti-fraternization laws and American men were not allowed, by law, to fraternize with Japanese women. So my parents started this courtship that was a very risky, secretive affair. [Swimming With Watermelons] traces their journey together and what they went through. They had a lovenest together and it was raided by the military police and my mother was arrested. So you deal with their personal love against all odds in the context of a very particular political-social moment." The unusual title comes from one of Paulus' mother's early memories. "Her father — who was wealthy and had money to share — used to buy watermelons in the summertime," Paulus explained. "When they would go to their country house at the beach, he would bring a truck full of watermelons and throw them in the ocean for all the children of the town to catch. It's this fun memory of life before the war, when life was good and life was swimming with watermelons."
Paulus and Weiner co-created the long-running hit The Donkey Show with their company, Project 400. She also directed Eady and Murray's Running Man and Fangs, as well as the Vineyard's big hit of 2001, Eli's Comin'.
Set design is by Myung Hee Cho with costumes by Ilona Somogyi, lighting by Michael Chybowski and sound by Brett Jarvis.
Tickets are $15-$45. The Vineyard is located at 108 E. 15th Street. For ticket information, call (212) 353-0303.
The Vineyard is also developing new projects by playwright Christopher Shinn (Four) and composer Kirsten Childs (The Bubby Black Girl...).
— By Christine Ehren
and Ernio Hernandez