Setting: at the end of a dimly lit arcade, bright neon light spills out the door of a narrow Hong Kong shop. A yellow sign with black plastic letters proclaims "Sam's Tailor" to the crowd rushing by on the sidewalk. Inside several people are drinking beer, laughing and ordering suits, shirts and pants.
One white-haired American with a face like a cleanshaven Santa holds his left arm out rather stiffly as a Chinese tailor circles him, sticking pins into his new sports coat, which has no right sleeve.
A short haired woman in a trench coat looks on quizzically, chewing gum, pointing now and then to a spot on the coat where the tailor may want to stick another pin.
Act I, Scene I:
Marjorie, the costume designer: "Bob did you tell him your arms are a different length?"
Bob, the actor: "No, I didn't. Are my arms a different length, Marjorie?"
Marjorie Slaiman affirms that they are. She should know. She has been dressing Arena Stage veterans the last 14 years.
When the company hit the road to Hong Kong early this month, she was with them. And now, in Sam's tailor shop, all 8-by-20 feet of it, her advice is considered invaluable.
Actor Robert Prosky, who's been with Arena Stage for 22 seasons, first decided not to buy anything halfway around the world that he could get at home, even if it's cheaper there. But a tailor-made lamb's-wool and cashmere sports jacket for $180 proves too tempting. Then, of course, he needs some gray gabardine pants to go with the jacket.
"We'll have to get a running line in every program, 'Arena Stage clothed by Sam the Tailor, Hong Kong," suggests producer David Chambers as he stands in the cramped shop sipping one of two glasses of beer being shared by five customers. Everyone in the shop calls employe Sam, but no one seems to know who the real Sam is.
The front wall of the shop has several pictures of British generals, uniforms by Sam. Several customer's waiting for their fittings speak with a kindred accent.
"Yes, I'd like to order some suits," says one hurried businessman after leafing through a sample book, looking at his watch and glancing sideways at the American entertainers. "I haven't got much time," he says to one clerk, who is busy pouring beer and making jokes.
Since the group of 30-plus Arena Stage people flew into town two weeks ago to put on two plays for the Hong Kong arts festival, they have charged around town buying, eating and sight seeing. For some of them, Hong Kong is overwhelming.
About 5 million people live in this colony, and thousands of Chinese still climb fences and swim across bays to join their relatives in this crass center of capitalism. The sidewalks in central are so jammed that pedestrians often have to squeeze by each other sideways. Railings are put up along the busiest sidewalks to keep people out of traffic, which is often at a standstill.
"You don't slow down here. Everybody just steps and goes," said actor Richard Bauer, glancing his right hand off his palm for a theatrical, dashing effect. "Sometimes I just push up against the side of a building to catch my breath," he added, wide-eyed.
Bauer was dressed in a long dark wool overcoat and gray fuzzy fur hat. His wife, actress Halo Wines, bought a red corduroy Chinese-style jacket, but it wasn't enough to protect her for a sore throat. The show went on anyway.
Setting: an old teahouse, the talbes surrounded by furnishings of dark wood, lots of mirrors and polished brass, offers cantonese dim-sum specialties to its mostly local clientele. Director Doug Wager, wearing a long tan trench coat, brown scarf and motoring cap to protect him against the unusually chilly weather, walks in and finds a table for himself and two other Arena Stage friends. Every other customer in the old teahouse stops reading his newspaper for a minute and looks over at Wager, in his early 30's who doffs his cap to reveal his shiny bald head.
"It's the first time I've felt in the distinct minority," recounted Wager, "But it was not the same as a black going into a bar in Alabama. There was nothing bad or good about the looks. They were just curious."
In another, more modern Chinese restaurnat, most of the Arena Stage group celebrated the opening night success of "You Can't Take It With You" with a late-night, eight-course dinner. Set in the midst of the Wan Chai area's Suzie Wong hostess bars, the restaurant offered a look at modern Hong Kong decor.
Big Saltwater tanks set in one rear wall displayed bright blue and yellow parrot fish, crabs and prawns. A sheet of water ran down a stainless steel wall, with a few palm trees nearby for an indoor garden effect.
A dozen or so people gathered around three large tables. No one flinched from trying his hand with chopsticks, and all managed reasonably well. Every now and then an Arena Stage member would give up and pick up a morsel with his fingers. "Well I tried for eight minutes," confided Richard Bauer. "Then my motor control falls out." "A toast to you all," cried Tom Fichandler. Arena's executive producer and controller of the purse strings. "Who says you can't take it with you? We took it half way around the world." Everyone drank to that, some with China-brewed tsingtao beer. Others stuck with scotch-and-soda.
Fod was a big talking point. Actor Terry Currier, who enjoys walking alone through crowded, dirty parts of town for several hours to "get a feel" for the place, reported that he had tried some of the unusual dishes displayed at a sidewalk stand in Wan Chai.
"Don't eat the octopus" he advised others. "I had one and it was like eating rubber bands. I chewed at it for a while, and then got rid of it," said Currier, aiming at a nonexistent spittoon close to his left foot.
Nobody had tried snake soup, the wintertime dish considered by locals to be an aphrodistac. Some had seen the night market which sells it and features live cobras crawling on the sidewalk to help attract a crowd. But rehearsals in the afternoon and plays at night limit the visitors' activities.
Ahh, but the weekends. The first one was spent walking and buying, which are synonymous here, according to producer Chambers. It was also a matter of unlagging after the long flight from London.
The actors and actresses, seemed somewhat awed by the fruit baskets and flowers in their rooms and the nighttime mint which is placed on their beds every evening.
"You know, you read about Frank Sinatra and his entourage taking over the 18th floor of a hotel, and you wonder what it's like up there. Well we're finding out what it's like up there," said Chambers. "At home some of us have trouble paying our electric bill, let alone having a mint before going to bed."
Some members of the stage group have found their curiosity about the Hong Kong way of life matched by the locals' curiosity about them.
David Toney, an apprentice in his second year with Arena, stands out in a crowd anyway because of his 6-foot-something height. That puts him about three heads taller than most other pedestrians here.
And actress Brenda Davis may have the only cornrow hairstyle this side of the Pearl River. At first she was upset with the head-turning attention she was getting.
"I'd go into a botique and all the salesgirls would gather in one corner and start talking in Chinese and laughing," said Davis. "But now I find the Chinese people are very warm. They're nice. The Europeans are much more judgmental," she concluded after one week of looking and being looked at.
The whole trip halfway around the world is seen by Chambers as a great opportunity to draw people closer, revitalize the group and incidentally get Arena Stage some nice publicity back home. It helps "from an artistic point of view and a funding point of view," Chambers noted.
"It's a very sensory and sensational city," he remarked after his first few days of walking around. "I think it will begin to influence our esthetic, all the color and sounds. Yesterday an actor and I noticed bamboo scaffolding in front of this enormous chrome and glass building, so we began to conceptualize a stage set made of bamboo and lashings. Our time here will begin to percolate the esthetic of the company."
Arena Stage premiered Aurthur Miller's "After the Fall," and next week it returns home to open the play in Washington. Halfway around the world is about as far as a road show can get.
You'll know when they're back in town, though, The Arena Stage group will be the ones with the high-collared bright saun jackets -- and the percolating esthetic.