Friday, June 01, 2012

THEATER: Takarazuka!!!

Photo/Heather Phelps Lipton
Japan's Takarazuka Review appears to be such a glorious contradiction of ideals that it seems almost impossible that it's never been the subject of a play before. Consider: it's a school of theater in which young girls (and girls only) are trained, almost militarily, to play both the male and female roles in soap-opera-like adaptations of Western musicals (and the occasional cultural folktale). That is, a rigidly controlled zone of utter freedom and expression; a place where the poor daughter of a fisherman, Yuko (Jennifer Ikeda), can become a James Dean-level "top star" of the company -- but only for two years, before she's replaced (as is tradition).

Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton can be forgiven, then, for gushing a bit enthusiastically through Takarazuka!!! (look at those exclamation points!), choosing an overtly expository device for her entree -- Nigel (Paul Juhn) is a half-Japanese British filmmaker, here to observe Yuko's 1975 "swan song" and subsequent replacement by Rui (Angela Lin) -- and inserting some jarringly artificial explanations of Japanese concepts of truth and identity into her scenes, most notably one in which a random old man on a train (Glenn Kubota) demonstrates the difference between tataemae (the facade) and honne (the truth). Moreover, by pairing her physical plotting -- Yuko's mental breakdown, Nigel's besotted behavior, the fine line between the obsession and escapism of a fan, Junko, or the closeted feelings of a fellow Takarisian (a well double-cast Brooke Ishibashi) -- with a metaphysical ghost story involving a "cursed" and suicidal former star, Akane (Lin), whose path mirrors Yuko's, Stanton is stylistically excuse some of the rougher patches. (To say nothing of the appropriate use of melodrama and song in the piece: there's a terrifically unsettling rendition of Tom Jones's "Delilah.) It says a lot -- credit surely due in part to the visually gifted director Lear deBessonet -- that the repeating motif of tataemae/honne manages to sneak under the audience's skin, despite being so baldly presented.

All that acknowledged, Takarazuka!!! would do well to ease back and stop rushing -- perhaps to split over two acts that do more to parallel the shifts between Yuko's on-stage control and off-stage collapse. We learn, toward the end of the play, that Nigel's mother was a Takarisian; it'd be nice if this detail appeared to inform more of his actions or to drive his (perhaps Oedipal) desires. And while deBessonet adroitly stages the supernatural occurrences (a red scarf falling from the sky; candles/lives snuffed in the darkness; the eerie echoing between Akane and Yuko), the show's depictions of actual sequences from Takarazuka could stand more rehearsal: the songs, dances, and performances from the play-within-the-play are not dissimilar enough from Takarazuka!!! to sustain the desired illusion.

To be fair, this production is a part of Clubbed Thumb's always ambitious Summerworks series, and there's more than enough meat here to merit further productions. It's only that, having caught a glimpse of real magic and powerful insights into the psyche, it's impossible not to ask for more.

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