Thursday, April 20, 2017

The stereotype of the delicate Asian flower - "Nadeshiko"

Mi Kang and Maile Wong in Nadeshiko (John Cornicello)
Sound Theatre Company
Through May 16, 2017

An ambitious, vigorously mounted production from Sound Theatre Company seeks to weave together Japanese societal-cultural after-effects of World War II with a family’s modern descendants. Adventurous local writer Keiko Green uses some unconventional theatrical devices in Nadeshiko, along with traditional storytelling.

The main character in the play is a 20-something young woman, Risa (Maile Wong), who is struggling with formulating her path in life, and affording it. Taking a cue from her cousin, Sue (Mi Kang), our first introduction to her is as a hired sex object to a “White Haired Man” (Greg Lyle-Newton). When she accidentally runs away with money after not completing the task, she comes back a bit later to offer an apology (but no money because she says she needs it).

Because of Risa’s insistence on inappropriately showing up at his door, Man and she develop a very odd kind of friendship. The rationale for it is extremely thin. Except that, perhaps, Man is very nice to her. He tolerates all kinds of inappropriate behavior and prying questions from her.

We also meet Sue as Risa tries to get Sue to help show her how to find a way to make money in this youth- and sex-obsessed society, by providing a live internet feed for paying subscribers. Sue is brash and much more clear-eyed about what she is doing and why she is doing it. She seems annoyed by Risa’s haphazard attention to the life-choice and its consequences. In fact, Green has written a pretty annoying main character!

We also meet Nadeshiko (Ina Chang), the grandmother. That is not her real name, we learn. It is an appellation given to young girls who took on a job of waving goodbye in 1945 to young Japanese kamikaze pilots as they fly away to die. It is the name of a flower.

Chang brings most of the humor into the play in a welcome way, though she’s overly stereotyped into “old.” Still, her interaction with the audience is definitely fun and warmly received.

We also are brought back in time to see the young Shoko (grandma’s real name) interact with one of the soldiers (Josh Kenji) in a couple of delicate scenes that allow us to try out what it might have been like to be in that situation. We see the soldier wrestle a bit with his fate and his decision, as Shoko begins to feel connected to him and to a possible future after the war.

The script focuses on idealized Asian beauty as a commodity and as possessed by the women characterized. A lot of the dialogue focuses on being “looked at” and the implication is not just that women are looked at sexually, but that cultural myths and societal norms have embedded Asian women into a particularly sexual fetish. The implication is that Asian women can’t be looked at any other way than sexually.

Not being Asian, I must simply accept that information when it comes from Asian women. Being female, having experienced, as all women do, many of the kinds of sexism rampant around us, I do not doubt the extra layers of sexism heaped upon Asian women.

Green’s use of this story of young women (nadeshiko) in Japanese culture is more benign than the darker history in that same war of “comfort women” – usually women who were abducted into sex slavery by the Japanese Army, usually not of Japanese descent. The women in Green’s history were more gently used, put on pedestals, with apparently strict rules against fraternization. It’s the “madonna" side of the “madonna/whore” coin.

The set of this handsome production is focused on elegant panels of walls that can swing from the Man’s pristinely white apartment into black walls of a tiny bedroom and other locations (designed by Catherine Cornell). Projections are used to good effect and key sound moments (designed by Dana Amromin) are important to the script.

Director Kaytlin McIntyre seems to have asked her actors to overplay their roles a bit. The three women are rarely modulated in their deliveries. Kang modulates best in the 1945 scenes as the young Shoko. Therefore, the two men come off better in their deliveries.

The script mostly skips over any area where the modern young women feel anything. Every time they get close to a real feeling, the characters stoically push them away, but that doesn’t really help the audience understand and identify with them much. We don’t know why Sue thinks doing Internet camera work is preferable to any other form of work, nor why Risa doesn’t care for her father. Even when Risa tells us why she’s angry with her mother, it’s more of a report with anger than it is an accessible experience.

Having said this, there is still much to like about the production. You can appreciate the unique point of view of the playwright and the characters. It’s clear the company cares about the production. Some of it is delightful. Some of it is thought-provoking. None of it is boring.

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