Looking Forward, Looking Back

The work of Terayama Shuji, a Japanese playwright and filmmaker who died in 1983, has been widely neglected in the United States. Despite the controversies surrounding those works that did appear here, at venues like La MaMa and at various international theater and film festivals; despite his continuing cult figure status in Japan; and despite the museum bearing his name in Misawa City, he has remained a marginal figure in this country. His work—alternately nostalgic and iconoclastic, romantic and brutally transgressive—is considered by some to be simply too "Japanese" to be embraced in the States. Theater is not a mass medium, however, and the South Wing's new Death in Vacant Lot! doesn't need to capture the "public" imagination to achieve success on its own terms. DIVL! is based on Denen ni Shisu (variously translated as Death in the Fields, Death in the Country, and Cache Cache Pastoral), a 1974 film considered by many to be Terayama's masterpiece. Adapted, translated, and directed by South Wing Artistic Director Kameron Steele, it is a memorable calling card from a remarkable young company determined to carve itself a niche in 21st-century avant-garde theater.

Like the film on which it is based, DIVL! at first appears to be a surreal story about a young man, Lukas (Nate Schenkkan), and his frustrated desire to escape his provincial hometown. From a traveling circus to a midnight tryst with a next-door neighbor, Lukas's world is represented in a highly stylized and intensely theatrical manner. Actors play multiple roles, awaiting entrances and exchanging costume pieces in full view of the audience, stepping in and out of the onstage band, and providing sound effects for each other's mimed actions.

The plot and style explode, however, when it becomes clear that the play we are watching is the creation of the same man 30 years later (Chris Oden). The adult Lukas is making a film about his coming of age but is dissatisfied with and skeptical of the way his fictionalized past has been presented. (It is unclear why this wasn't reframed as a play within a play rather than a suspiciously play-like film within a play.) He dismisses his cast and sets out to examine his memories, and these framing moments are presented in a far more naturalistic style than the carnival-esque memory sequences.

The narrative threads twist together when child Lukas and adult Lukas confront each other and attempt to rewrite history by engaging in the unstable and creative process of memory. Young Lukas is sent back to act out more "accurate" scenes from the author's remembered past and, ultimately, to try to radically revise it. If author and character can fundamentally alter their shared memory, can they subsequently alter the present and future as well?

This all sounds like heady and potentially pretentious stuff, but, with very few exceptions, Steele keeps the action surprisingly entertaining even as he delves into the philosophical vagaries of Terayama's text. Often funny, occasionally frightening, and beautifully staged throughout, DIVL! takes full advantage of its excellent cast. The spectacular athleticism and seemingly boundless creativity of these actors is a testament to Steele's sure touch as a director and also to the impact of Suzuki and Viewpoints training methods on contemporary actors around the world. Standout performances included Schenkkan's wide-eyed Lukas, Jessica Green's hilarious and poignant Lady Inflatable, Jill A. Samuel's hysterically Freudian One Eye, and Catherine Friesen as the victimized and vengeful Rachel.

Mariana Marquez's spare light and set design are integrated seamlessly with the uncredited sound design to shape the rough but wonderful temporary space at 15 Nassau Street. The onstage band also composed original music for the production, working from J.A. Ceasar's soundtrack to the original film. The result is fascinating mix of rock opera and experimental/electronic music that creates a haunting atmosphere.

The South Wing's press materials are full of self-aggrandizing pronouncements and unapologetic name-dropping that attempt to place Steele among a pantheon of experimental theater artists ranging from Terayama to Tadashi Suzuki to Robert Wilson. But DIVL! makes enough of a statement on its own to merit significant attention.

Of all its many successes, the production's greatest achievement is to draw attention to the fact that all theater is site-specific and ephemeral. This play isn't set in a small town or on a film set: it's set in the theater in which it is performed. As characters onstage grapple with the violent tension between memory and history, the window behind them looks out onto the man-made canyons of lower Manhattan's financial district, just a few feet away from a great scar on the city's collective memory.

More than any abstractions evoked by projections of Terayama's tanka poems above the stage or musings about the loss of cultural innocence embedded in the press release, this window onto the outside world makes explicit the connection between the histories of individuals and the history of the world in which they live.

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