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Theatre in Review: The Nosebleed (Chocolate Factory Theater/Japan Society)

Aya Ogawa, Saori Tsukada. Photo: Brian Rogers

In a way, the nosebleed is the least of it. It happens to Kenya, the five-year-old son of Aya Ogawa, the playwright, director, and cast member of this autobiographical entertainment. As you probably know, most kids get them, sooner or later, but in this case, it is a triggering event -- for his mother.

By her own account, Ogawa is happily married and a doting mother of two. (Well, she says her kids drive her crazy, but that's an expression of affection in mom-speak.) But being both Japanese and American and suddenly seized with the idea that she is depriving her sons of their heritage, she spirits them away to Japan for summer-school language lessons. It is there, after a long, exhausting journey to a strange land, that Kenya's nose bursts forth, leaving his bedding a bloody mess. Ogawa is seized with doubts. As she asks, "Why am I doing this? Like putting on this charade for my kids, pretending to be Japanese?" Behind this bad-mom guilt trip lies a nagging uncertainty: Ogawa wonders if her domestic relationships have a shadow on them, the reason being her late father, whose profound alienation from his wife and children left its mark. (She freely admits to hating him.) The Nosebleed is a kind of dramatized essay about a profoundly unsatisfactory father -- daughter relationship, recounted with candor, humor, and sorrow. It's a story that engages both in its particulars and in the expression of feelings that will resonate with many in the audience. It is a carefully wrought piece, with delicately poised structure that balances her family saga with excerpts from The Bachelorette, an appearance by one of the Windsors, and a certain pop music chestnut, among other diverse elements. Every choice, no matter how seemingly random, contributes to the overall effect.

Ogawa was raised in Japan and California; her father, a banker and, later, a manager for a golf-course company, was often absent for business travel. But even when he was at home, he was thousands of miles away. In a comment that gives one pause, she says, "When my father died, I was 33 years old. And in those 33 years during which our time on this planet overlapped, we had two conversations." The first took place just before she left her freshman year at Columbia; it focused on the cost of college tuition. The second discussion came years later, when her mother, tired of being frozen out by her spouse, was leaving him. This time around, Ogawa, trying to shock her father into some -- any -- response, offers a blunt list of his shortcomings. His response: "Your mother is a very emotional person. I understand that she's a very emotional person, and it makes her volatile."

Much of The Nosebleed focuses on the period following her father's stroke, when he underwent an irreversible decline, leading to his death two years later. Anyone who has been through similar experiences will likely experience a humorous shock of recognition, especially when Ogawa takes on the task of cleaning out his house. (A closet filled with twenty Members-Only jackets? Really? And why the interest in painting portraits of Princess Diana?) There are shockers, too, including legal documentation accusing her father of committing an appalling act of sexual harassment in his workplace. The more she learns about him, the blurrier his image becomes.

Ogawa's story would be engaging in any medium, but she has found a specifically theatrical language here that proves felicitous. She is represented by four performers -- Drae Campbell, Haruna Lee, Saori Tsukada, and Kaili Y. Turner -- with Peter Lettre showing up for a grisly/hilarious sketch as a white parent from her kids' school, intent on mansplaining Japanese accents to her. Ogawa herself takes on other roles, most memorably her father. The evening begins on a genial note with cast members telling amusing tales on themselves, an elegant way of introducing the dominant theme of failure. Also, because Ogawa is a fan of the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise, the text weaves in excerpts from the season starring Rachel Lindsay -- the first Bachelorette of color -- focusing on her meeting with suitor Dean Unglert's family, an event cited by Us Magazine as one of the most disastrous in the show's history. Unglert grew up neglected by his father, who, baffling his adult children, converted to the Sikh religion and changed his name to Paramroop. You can see why this resonates with the playwright. Do we ever really know our parents? Long after it is over, The Nosebleed is likely to leave you wondering about that.

There is much more, including a grimly amusing encounter with a disapproving mortician, a fascinating look at Buddhist burial rituals, and a finale that manages to introduce Diana and, as a kind of valedictory, the song "My Way," translated into Japanese. Throughout the piece, laughter, pain, and mystery exist side by side, informing and enriching each other. Even the most questionable move -- in which members of the audience hand in written questions they wished they had asked their fathers -- doesn't distract.

Ogawa is a most adept director here, and her well-chosen cast delivers strongly. I was particularly taken with Tsukada, who slips in and out of various characters with astonishing ease, but nothing tops Ogawa as her father, his face frozen in astonishment at the ongoing failures of his body. The production also benefits from effectively minimalist scenery and costumes by Jian Jung and lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Given the age of Ogawa's father -- he was born in 1930, making him 15 when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- one wonders if his paralyzing stoicism had something to do with growing up in wartime Japan. It's a point that remains unaddressed and, of course, there may be no way of knowing. In any case, the playwright probes the drama of an unloving parent with remarkable insight. She might have hated him, but she gives him a remarkably gallant sendoff. --David Barbour

(4 October 2021)

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