Set in Japan, Okada Drama Haunts NYC Theatergoers

The Play Company's latest production examines the quest for normalcy after a devastating tsunami.

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Kensaku Shinohara, Yuki Kawahisa and Maho Honda (Arisa) in “Time's Journey Through a Room” at A.R.T. New York Theatres. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

The date 3/11/11 may not resonate with New Yorkers, but in Japan it instantly evokes the devastation of March 11, 2011 — the day that 18,000 people lost their lives following an unforeseen mega-quake and ensuing tsunami. Another 34,000 people were then displaced from their homes in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that came afterward. Today, seven years later, Japan is still working to rebuild, and its quest for a new normal serves as the backdrop for Time’s Journey Through a Room by playwright Toshiki Okada, running at A.R.T./New York Theatres through June 10.

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Produced by The Play Company (PlayCo), Okada’s drama offers a specifically Japanese view, not a Western view, of the disaster. Through the reflections and interactions of its three characters — Arisa (Maho Honda), Honoka (Yuki Kawahisa) and Kazuki (Kensaku Shinohara) — on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, Time’s Journey asks New Yorkers who mostly know 9/11 to imagine and absorb the 3/11 of another culture.

PlayCo’s mission is to produce plays from the US and abroad that “engage New Yorkers in a dynamic global practice of contemporary theatre and expand the American repertoire.” It aims to “reflect and respond” through “singular international programming” to the “globally connected way we all live now.” PlayCo Artistic Director Kate Loewald told me:

The Fukushima incident is specific to Japan and the people who were directly affected by it. On the most basic level I want to give our audience an opportunity to learn about and reflect on that event and discover how they might relate to the very personal stories around such a giant event.

Also in Leowald’s statement is a subtle social critique: disaster coverage, as it exists in US media, is over-amplified until it isn’t covered anymore. Rather than disseminating information, our reports resemble big-budget end-of-the-world movies, with epic depictions of calamity, with or without special effects. The playwright seems free of this American habit. Okada presents no buildings razed to rubble, no trashed landscapes, no bodies in the street. He makes no attempt, on stage, to reproduce the event or its aftermath.

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Kensaku Shinohara and Maho Honda. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

In fact, the play is contained within a neat, minimalist room, which gives off a whiff of that new-normalcy that Japan hungers for. Yet it becomes clear, as we watch Arisa, Honoka and Kazuki that the characters are still experiencing post-disaster effects. In lieu of razed houses and flooded roads, aftershocks are laid before the audience by Arisa’s subtle spatial renegotiation as she passes through a doorway. Arisa and Kazuki consider what sharing a couch looks like. Honoka moves to a window to investigate what it means to be indoors, looking out. Okada replaces the din and rubble of post-apocalypse blockbusterism with soulful, introspective quietude.

Stuffing a tempest into a metaphorical bottle may feel alien to American theatergoers. Yet isn’t the purpose of theater to challenge audiences to re-think their own presuppositions around a subject? Works from abroad like this one constitute an even greater ask. Not only must audiences re-think their own reactions, they must re-contextualize those reactions within their own cultural lens.

Loewald understands this. As she sees it, PlayCo’s productions aim both to promote and to facilitate engagement with this struggle. “Part of the work for a show like this is cultural translation,” she told me. “We need to not only translate the text — a complex task in itself — but also make a production that offers entry points for our NYC audience into nation-specific aspects, such as historical-political background or behavioral norms, that will likely be unfamiliar or remote.”

Time’s Journey director Dan Rothenberg and his design team skillfully provide these entry points. A deconstructed doorway, a mind-warping opening gesture created through a poetic display of lights, a further use of light to signal the passage of time — these all localize an audience that is literally foreign to the play.

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At the top of the piece, Arisa directly addresses the audience, asking everyone to close their eyes. This introduces a sense of intimacy and enhances our ability to listen. Okada successfully sustains this intimacy by requiring of us only a willingness to engage with the play with an open spirit. Loewald speaks of this intimacy by way of invitation:

We make a production that preserves the essence of the play. We don’t ‘Americanize.’ It is true to the writer’s voice and also interprets the play for our community, inviting them to step into this theatre world. If we succeed, the show will touch them deeply enough to bring their own experiences and point of view into conversation with the play.

These conversations occur not only between American and foreign programming in a cross-cultural sense, but also in a spiritual sense. As Okada’s characters haunt the stage, a ghostly superimposition extends out into the very seats of the auditorium. Each audience member sits in the figurative seat of someone who had firsthand proximity to the events of 3/11.

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Loewald sees the results of this cross-cultural spatial séance: “When Okada was here, we had a post-show conversation with him. He asked the audience whether they experienced the play as something remote or if it brought up parts of their own lives. Many people offered ways in which the play stirred up their own experiences — the way New Yorkers interacted with each other for a period of time after 9/11, for example.”

Through the marriage of PlayCo’s mission and Okada’s Time’s Journey, we can grasp the capacity of the theater to create a kind of international synthesis. Not every contemporary production from abroad may succeed in this way. In an increasingly global arts landscape, however, this theatrical model deserves our attention and support.