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Theatre in Review: The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise (The Play Company/JACK)

Jason Quarles, Susannah Flood, Racherl Christopher. Photo: Carol Rosegg

There are five people -- three men and two women -- on stage in The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise: youth is not the only thing that's sonic, but much of the time they represent a single voice, that of a youngish person who struggles, quietly and without too much strain, to articulate his/her deeper feelings and needs. "What I'm about to say is something I've thought about in my head, in fact something I've never revealed to anyone else before," we are told. The windup goes on in this manner for several more lines before we get to the heart of the matter: "I really hope my way of life improves compared to the way it is now." This is followed by more than a dozen lines of equivocation, to wit, the speaker is beginning to feel that it is really all right to express such desires: "There's a battle between saying things like that out loud, like 'for people to know that, oh, is that what's on your mind, is, you know, a bit much' and the 'but you should stop saying that because it's better to take a stand and tell the truth, just do it', and recently, the 'it's better to just do it side' has been winning."

Assuming you can parse that last sentence -- to be fair, it is much clearer in performance -- there are two possible reactions to it, which, in turn, will guide your reaction to Toshiki Okada's play: Either you find it to be a subtly humorous revelation of a universal state of mind, or your attention will wander, allowing you to focus on your to-do list for the next day. In any case, do not expect drama: The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise continues in this fashion for the next 75 minutes, never really becoming boring yet always seeming to be on the edge of meaning something without quite getting there.

The authorial voice, or, as I like to call it, TAV, expressed by all five actors, worries that even another 50 or 60 years of existence will pass in little more than the blink of an eye; he is haunted by a dream of a dead girlfriend, which creates a bittersweet feeling -- it takes something like 250 words to analyze the feeling's distinct qualities, how it moves from the solar plexus to the tear ducts -- that is far more meaningful than anything experienced with his real-life girlfriend. Actually, TAV may have a point; in the play's most amusing passages, he engages in little passive-aggressive battles with the living girlfriend, who quietly frustrates his desire for travel. For example, she denigrates Paris, noting that a trip to the Eiffel Tower was spoiled by hordes of immigrants all selling the same tacky souvenirs.

If, as TAV seems to decide, a meaningful life isn't in the cards, there's a certain yearning for security. In another passage, TAV sits on the subway, half-awake, contemplating the possibility that the car will continue plunging underground for the rest of his life. "I wish I could stay here forever. I feel like that would be just wonderful." Later, at a party, the conversation among the guests consists of little nothings about people who hate Tokyo and questions like, "Do you think daily life has to be fun or like necessarily has to be remarkable? Or like, to put it another way, don't you think there's a lot of pressure from the world that if you don't have something fun in daily life there's something wrong?" In what is probably the most revealing passage, one performer notes, "The way you are living is a far cry from the way humankind ought to be living." Another responds, "No matter what anyone says, the fact is I already know that myself. And the fact is, I'm fine with the way I live."

You can't criticize The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise for being banal -- it is purposefully, willfully banal; indeed, banality is the author's modus operandi. One of the very few Japanese playwrights to achieve much of a profile in modern America, Okada's work requires a bit of context to be fully appreciated. What's important is what's missing from his plays: He is the voice of young Japanese adults, living in a country that has lost faith in its economic system, is plagued by natural and environmental catastrophes, and is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. Real, authentic existence -- the very notion of achievement -- has gone by the boards; politics, art, and religion never get a moment's notice, and relationships are inherently unsatisfying. Instead, the people in his plays -- you can hardly call them characters -- turn inward, breaking down their lives into nanoparticles, examining them for whatever bits of inspiration can be found.

In this, Okada is somewhat reminiscent of the American playwright Will Eno. Both of them are poets of quiet unease, aware of the gathering darkness all around them and unable to do much more than make wry little comments and microscopic observations. This, I think, is an inversion of the natural order of things; one expects the voice of youth to be furious, iconoclastic, ready to blow up the world as it exists, if that's what it takes to see it anew. Yet these still-young playwrights struggle so hard to clear their throats we never learn if they have something to say. Where once writers like Beckett, Ionesco, and Albee railed furiously at a world without meaning, writers like Okada and Eno are content to scratch the scab of existence, looking quizzically at what they find, then drifting off to another episode of free-floating anxiety. Writing about emptiness is always a tricky business, but it doesn't have to be as bland as this.

If The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise is a less-than-gripping experience, it is a real opportunity for the curious to experience the cutting edge of Japanese theatre, aided by Aya Ogawa, Okada's longtime translator, in a production by Dan Rothenberg that goes a long way toward keeping a claim on one's attention. I shudder to think what the play would be like in hands less gifted than those of Rachel Christopher, Susannah Flood, Dan Kublick, Jason Quarles, and Moses Villarama. Mimi Lien's beige-on-beige set strikes just the right note of sterility and Jjyoun Chang's lighting gets a striking variety of looks within a nearly all-white color palette. Jon Carter's costumes have the comfortable, lived-in qualities of real clothing. Mikhail Fiksel's sound design conjures the distant rumble of a subway among other effects.

Okada has said recently in an interview that because of his increased profile in America he has become conscious, when writing, of the impact his work might have outside Japanese culture. Good point, but, given his elliptical approach, there's no way of understanding his plays without reading about them first. (Among other things, if you want a clue about that title, you'll have to read Okada's New York Times interview.) Without this context, his navel-gazing dialogue seems perilously close to silly. (Even in context, it is sometimes hard to take.) Listening to a mostly young audience have a good chuckle or two at The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise, I wondered if something -- maybe everything -- isn't being lost in translation.--David Barbour


(2 June 2014)

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