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Beate Hein Bennett

“Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence”


Kyle Griffiths, Claire Buckingham, Samuel Im. Photo by Paula Court.

March 16 – April 1, 2018
La Mama, Ellen Stewart Theatre 66 East 4th Street (between 2nd and 3rd Avenue)
Presented by La Mama Experimental Theatre Club
Thurs. – Sat. @ 8 PM; Sunday @ 4 PM; Monday, March 19 @ 8 PM
General Admission $25, students &seniors $20
Box Office: 212-352-3101 or www.lamama.org
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett March 16, 2018


Kyle Griggiths and projection of Anastasia Olowin. Photo by Paula Court.

As I was immersed in watching and listening to the multi-layered performance evolve, metamorphose, and compound—video imagery, live actors, soundscapes from above, bits of narrative, quiet stasis and explosive movement filled the space in utterly unpredictable combinations, the Surrealist creative concept of “exquisite corpse” suddenly popped into my mind as a structural hook whereby to grasp the marvelous wild proceedings in front of me. (The “exquisite corpse” mode of composing resembled a popular social game by which somebody would write a line or draw a form on a piece of paper, fold it, give it to the next person, who would add a line, and fold it again; eventually, an utterly unpredictable poem or shape would emerge from the unfolded paper.) In “Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence” the narrative fragments ultimately coalesced (for me, at least) into a loose and mysterious story that bound a personal fatal entanglement to the larger global story of destruction, present and past, environmental/social/political.

John Jesurun
Takeshi Kawamura

The long-distance collaboration between American artist, John Jesurun and Japanese artist, Takeshi Kawamura was accomplished mostly by email correspondence, between December 2014 and February 2017. John Jesurun, a 1996 MacArthur Genius Award winner, is a polymath of theater arts who creates non-linear compositions that incorporate music, media, spoken word, and movement which inhabit very specific spatial configurations. Takeshi Kawamura as director and playwright has garnered many awards in his country for innovative theater that combines traditional forms with modern themes and aesthetics. Their collaboration process consisted of alternately producing ten minute responsive sections which were translated into each other’s language. Meeting periodically in New York and Tokyo they developed the work with actors in each language. As I learned from the press release, “their collaborative strategy recalls a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry called renga, in which one poem is written by more than one author working together.” The opening stanza contains the incipient motif; it is called hokku, a forerunner to the haiku whose form is quite precise but whose content displays a profound often absurd non-sequitur. The title of the play is derived from a haiku by Ki No Tsurayaki (872-945):

To the distant observer
They are chatting of the blossoms
Yet in their hearts
They are thinking very different thoughts

Kotoba Dan, Samuel Im. Photo by Paula Court.

During the performance I was struck by several repeating narrative motifs with variations in perspective, at times humorous, but all touching on the pre-occupation with violent death, either by suicide or some form of terror. Obviously, the motif of various forms and events of violent death has consumed the American public but it is also a recurrent motif of Japanese discourse. While the gun has played a traditional role in American violent deaths of self and others, the Japanese tradition of preserving one’s honor has been sublimated in hara-kiri, the formalized ritual suicide. (Playwright/novelist Yukio Mishima, for example, committed hara-kiri in public.) The play’s “hokku” scene, written by John Jesurun, contains the incipient premise and character: a man who believes he murdered a woman as an 18 year old is released from prison after ten years. Murder or suicide—this becomes the driving question for the duration of the performance as it meanders through the metamorphosing plot enacted by five superb pliable actors, enhanced by video images projected onto drapery on stage and soundscapes performed by live musicians on the balcony above the audience.

Kotoba Dan

The artistry of the entire ensemble succeeded in depicting and embodying the central concepts of impermanence and mortality that mark our lives, whether in the Japanese or the American context. The question of personal identity in a world where natural, economic, or political disasters necessitate migration is a daily struggle for millions of displaced persons. It seems that migratory existence necessitates the “death” of one personality in order to make room for another; it is a predicament that affects the relationship to self and to others. All this is encompassed and compressed into an energetic performance of a little over an hour.

Claire Buckingham. Photo by Paula Court.

John Jesurun devised the stage by dividing the rectangular transverse performance space with sheer white movable drapes into four quadrants; the audience sits on the two long facing sides. Alternating back and gray video images (John Jesurun and David Pym) of the speaking actors, of indistinct ash-gray blowing leaves, and a forest are projected onto the drapes. Some select pieces of simple furniture, a wooden table and a couple of high chairs, and some props are added as necessary. Jeff Nash’s flexible lighting design keeps the focus on the actors and their text.

Anastasia Olowin

Aya Ogawa’s translation of the Japanese text blends seamlessly with the English text. Phrases float by like some bytes from the ubiquitous cyber cloud. The acting ensemble is virtuoso in maintaining rhythm, energy, pacing, and intelligibility while making switchblade changes in mood. Anastasia Olowin, Claire Buckingham, Kotoba Dan, Kyle Griffiths, and Samuel Im function like a chamber ensemble, responding to each other while establishing their own mercurial characters. They are riveting as they build this disparate vision of a world in disarray. It is peculiar how a work of art that is filled with human despair gives hope for the survival of the human race through the creative spirit.


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