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Theatre in Review: Suicide Forest (Ma-Yi Theater Company/ART-New York Theatres)

Haruna Lee, Eddy Toru Ohno. Photo: Richard Termine.

Suicide Forest is a fantasy on themes of identity in three movements. It is, by turns, brilliant, baffling, and highly self-indulgent. If, at times, it seems like an assault on the audience's sensibilities, it is equally unsparing of the playwright, Haruna Lee. Because each sequence is different from the others, it is difficult to know what to make of it -- and even harder to suggest what anyone else might see in it. It's a head-scratcher, an original, an irritant. With this one, you're on your own.

The first third of the piece -- to my eyes, the most successful part by far -- is a kind of nightmare vaudeville that focuses on everything bizarre and/or creepy in contemporary Japanese culture: the pervasiveness of Hello Kitty-style cuteness, stifling social codes, the sexual fetishization of schoolgirls, and the salaryman worldview, in which individuals are subordinated, to a killing degree, to the needs of the corporation. A business exec type, known in the script as Salaryman, has a transactional rendezvous, in one of the country's "love hotels," with Azusa, a young woman dressed in a school uniform and white knee socks. He wins her over with a Gucci handbag, a gesture that doesn't prevent their encounter from ending in a knockout punch. Previously, Azusa was bullied by Miho and Chiho, Salaryman's daughters, both dressed in ruffled pink pinafores and sporting coiffures in blue, pink, and white. (Alice Tavener's costumes are an asset throughout.) These adorable little tykes are actually first-class sadists who douse Azusa with soft drinks and strip and sexually humiliate her. Later, Salaryman will end up on a game show, where he is fired and made to wear a diaper and ball gag while being nearly strangled, as a team of celebrities looks on, offering joshing commentary. The boss, known as President Ken -- sporting a goat head because I don't know why -- offers an amusing address, in Japanese with English surtitles -- that sums up just about every business cliché ever spun by a bloviating supervisor.

Up to this point, Suicide Forest deals in a particularly icy form of satire; it doesn't always generate laughter, but it develops its argument with savage glee. (I wonder how it would play in Japan, or in front of an audience at, say, the Japan Society, New York's official repository of that country's culture.) It's probably a fair question to wonder if Lee could sustain this sort of cartooning for an entire evening without wearing out the audience; in any case, the play makes an abrupt turn with journey to Aokigahara, aka The Sea of Trees, a glen at the bottom of Mount Fuji informally known as the "suicide forest." (It is allegedly haunted by ghosts and possessed of other magical properties; in any case, it the most popular spot in Japan for killing oneself.) The scene that follows is largely populated by goats -- to be specific, the Japanese serow, a kind of goat-antelope -- who talk about nothing much while noshing on rice. This is the point where Suicide Forest lost me, and you may find yourself wondering what the point is after such a strongly articulated opening sequence.

Next, Lee, who also plays Azusa, steps forward to address the audience and claim the playwright's role. The action throughout is haunted by Mad Mad, an older woman dressed in red who resembles the ghost in a Japanese horror movie. Mad Mad is played by Aoi Lee, the playwright's Japanese mother. The playwright adds, "I grew up with a mother who I can never fully communicate with. Language barrier." As it happens, the playwright, whose late father was Taiwanese-American, came to the US at the age of eight and continues to struggle with multiple strands of identity. Many questions are posed to Aoi Lee: "Why did we move to Seattle from Japan? What do you do behind closed doors? Did you blame yourself when Dad was sick? Did you ever love your mother?" Also included is a monologue in which the playwright describes a sexual awakening that involves repeatedly masturbating to Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry.

Whether you will see this as courageous self-revelation or an avalanche of TMI is hard to predict; I tend to take the latter view, while warily acknowledging the validity of many of the concerns on the table. The playwright's passion is not in doubt, but, in this case, it works against clarity of purpose and critical perspective. According to Wikipedia, one of the prevailing myths about the Sea of Trees is that navigational compasses go haywire there. This may not be true, but Suicide Forest, which begins in a display of scathing wit, loses its compass, seizing one's attention only to wander off and get embarrassingly personal.

The director, Aya Ogawa, does sterling work in the early sequences but struggles to keep things engaging later on. Among the cast, the standouts include the playwright as the ambivalent, sometimes catatonic Azusa; Eddy Toru Ohno as the equally predatory and put-upon Salaryman; and Aoi Lee, a trained Butoh performer, who moves through the action with eerie grace.

Also, Jian Jung's attention-getting set design includes a purposely kitschy environment dominated by a weird red-and-white water-drop pattern, which gives way to an imaginative representation of the sea of trees, depicted as a series of dangling, bulbous plants that, when cut open, yield cataracts of rice. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting bombards the first set with color, which sometimes results in a certain amount of visual overload, and her projections provide needed translations in certain scenes. Fan Zhang's original music and sound design is especially helpful in the game-show sequence.

It's not fun to be critical of a work that is so personal and so obviously costs the playwright; you try telling a full house about your sexual activities, with your mother lurking in the wings, no less. And, clearly, Haruna Lee is an original voice. But it's a voice that wants more discipline to be effective. Then again, it's impossible not to be curious about what this artist will do next. --David Barbour

(4 March 2020)

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