Monday, May 21, 2018

13 (2018-2019: Review: TIME'S JOURNEY THROUGH A ROOM (seen May 17, 2018)

"Fukushima, Mon Amour"

As I watched Dan Rothenberg’s fine-tuned staging for the Play Company of Time’s Journey through a Room (Heya ni Nagareru Jikan no Tabi / 部屋に流れる時間の旅)--Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada’s evocative, well-crafted, but externally undramatic play—it was difficult not to think of notable examples of Japan’s theatre: numbingly slow, emotionally controlled, narratively slight, and emphasizing a state of mind more than a dramatic action. Even its length—12 pages of script requiring 50 minutes to enact (75 minutes in its Japanese version)—and the existence of a ghost echo practice. 
 Kensaku Shinohara, Yuki Kawahisa. Photo: Julietta Cervantes.
This somber, three-character drama by director/playwright Okada (b. 1973), founder of the internationally respected avant-garde company cheltfitsch, also shares with not only certain structural similarities but a poetic preoccupation with the lingering effects of a past occurrence. In this is usually something that happened centuries ago but, in Time’s Journey through a Room, only a few years have passed since its inciting event, the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown of 2011. And, as with , many spectators are likely to find its tortoise-like pacing, lack of action, and inner-directed expressivity stultifying. Others will be moved by the throbbing trauma present beneath the surface's seeming placidity. 

The production opens with a striking, abstract image (not mentioned in the script) when, with the house darkened, a square, tunnel-like opening, whose shape is indicated only by thin bands of neon lighting, shimmers as sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman creates powerful rumbling effects, surely symbolizing the 2011 disaster.

When the play proper begins, a tall, slim woman, Arisa (Maho Honda), enters, dressed in dark blue jeans and sweater (the costumes are by Maiko Matsushima). Arisa, who speaks both in the first person to us and in dialogue with someone else, asks us to close our eyes in preparation for “the journey.” Her presence, and even the account she'll soon tell of being in transit, stuck on a bus, is reminiscent of the supporting character (called the waki) in , who often describes the journey he's currently undertaking before the main action begins.

When told to open our eyes, we see a sleekly modernist room (designed by Anna Kiraly and sensitively lit by Amith Chandrashaker). Its stage right wall is pierced by a small, deep window space, and its upstage wall is dominated by a large, hallway-like opening, part of it occupied by a translucent glass panel. Standing alone within the wall-less stage left area is a simple door frame.

Situated at our left on the bright, shiny, yellow floor, which the characters traverse in socks or bare feet, are a small, round table and two chairs, all white, while up center is the kind of stylish gray sofa you might see at Roche Bobois. The -like minimalist feeling is heightened by the absence, apart from a flower in glass of water (symbol of a new life?), of all decorative accessories.
Kensaku Shinohara, Maho Honda. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
We soon see Honoka (Yuki Kawahisa), the late wife of Kazuki (Kensaku Shinohara), her long, black hair in a braid and bangs, wearing a below-the-knees, knitted, beige dress as she moves about in choreographed patterns (movement credited to Lily Kind), while talking to Kazuki, who sits in a chair much of the time, his back to us. 

Honoka's ghost speaks of things she remembers, often asking the mostly silent Kazuki to confirm her memories, and expressing her happiness at seeing and hearing the life around her, even things she once disliked (like a baby’s crying). Lingering in a limbo-like existence that ties her to the past she can't forget, she reflects on events immediately after the earthquake and on how the event transformed her, bringing happiness to both herself and Kazuki, as if the catastrophe was going to change the world for the better. Although this enlightened feeling arrived before her death, it bears the mark of the search for transcendence or salvation that occupies many play ghosts.

Arisa begins to weave herself into the narrative, telling us of being on a bus stuck in traffic as she makes her way to Kazuki in this special room, where, we’re informed, outside sounds can’t be heard. Meanwhile, we learn from Honoka of the nostalgia she feels when recalling various trivialities involving her and Kazuki, like quarrelling over something “stupid,” before the earthquake struck.
Yuki Kawahisa, Kensaku Shinohara, Maho Honda. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Arisa arrives, apologizes for her lateness, and engages in small talk with Kazuki during which we discover that Honoka died a year earlier, not because of the earthquake but, a few days later, from asthma. Honoka, for her part, continues her trip down memory lane, mentioning things like how such ordinary signs of life, like someone refilling a vending machine, after the earthquake filled her heart with love, not unlike how Emily in Our Town longingly mentions clocks ticking and other mundane things the living take for granted.

Arisa and Kazuki, beginning a new chapter in their lives, chat about happiness, their mutual attraction and their trepidation in facing the future, making it necessary to take things slowly. Kazuki reveals his gratitude for how the earthquake had made Honoka so optimistic about the better world that will follow in its wake, and talks of his plan to rewallpaper the room (which is actually wallpaper-less) because, for all his inability to forget the past, the living must keep changing. 

Honoka continues to recollect the past, expressing not only her post-disaster positivity but her belief, which Kazuki’s new relationship with Arisa puts in doubt, that the happiness she shared with him will never fade away. Time’s Journey through a Room casts a cynical eye on all of Honoka’s sanguine presumptions.
Yuki Kawahisa, Kensaku Shinohara, Maho Honda. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Thus ends the script, although Rothenberg extends the action with three blackouts that, when the lights come on again, allow the actors to assume a series of tableaus suggestive of what follows. At the performance I attended, some audience members began to clap after the first blackout, thinking the play was over (it was but the performance wasn’t). When the lights came up after the third tableau there was a longer than usual hesitation as we waited to be sure it was okay to applaud.

Audiences seeking a play that provides specific information about the horrors of 2011 will have to look elsewhere. Okada, while inspired by what happened in Fukushima, has more universal concerns about dealing with tragedy. The events are only briefly referenced and the play, despite the colloquial realism of its dialogue (perfectly rendered into English by Aya Ogawa, my favorite Japanese theatre translator), is deliberately vague about just where this room is and how, given what we’ve seen in videos of the devastation wrought by the quake and tsunami, it could have escaped being damaged.
Kensaku Shinohara, Yuki Kawahisa, Maho Honda. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The company, each member of which is a native-born Japanese, has been directed to perform in a cool, emotionally detached way. While never actually robotic—there’s always a suggestion of conviction behind the words—their cipher-like characters speak at a sedate pace, with abundant pauses, and, aside from Honoka’s relatively active behavior, with minimal movement. This approach also brings to mind the "quiet theatre" of Hirata Oriza.

While there are notable differences between this production and the 2016 Japanese one staged by the author, a rough idea of what’s involved—minus the Japanese version's unique props and droning and other unusual sounds—can be seen in this montage of clips from its international tour. One wonders, in fact, whether what’s lacking in the current staging is a more thoroughly integrated system of movement, sound, and speech.
Kensaku Shinohara, Yuki Kawahisa. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The Play Company, led by Kate Loewald, deserves support for its commitment over the years to presenting cutting-edge work by contemporary Japanese playwrights. Time’s Journey through a Room is their third Okada play following Enjoy (2010) and The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise (2014). It’s also his third rumination on the 2011 disaster. 

For me, the aloof and measured manner of Okada’s play and its highly selective treatment of character and situation invite a cerebral rather than emotional engagement. That, in fact, is not unlike my response to certain (not all) plays, despite their austere physical and aural beauty. Time's Journey through a Room has something to offer but be prepared to go with your eyes wide open (except when you're told to keep them shut).


A.R.T./NYC Theatres
502 W. 53rd St., NYC
Through June 10