Five Days in March at LaMama

Just back from Witness Relocation’s production of Toshiki Okada’s Five Days in March at LaMama.  I saw the original Chelftisch production at Japan Society a little over a year ago. More recently I saw the PlayCo.’s version of Okada’s Enjoy at 59E59, directed by Dan Rothenberg, so its fun to compare/contrast. Both translations are by Aya Ogawa and she has done a remarkable job of creating a hipster/slacker vernacular that is at once poetic and lackadaisical.

From the website description:

“Five Days in March” is set in the days before the U.S. began its war against Iraq in March 2003. Minobe meets Yukki at a rock show. Their awkward conversation leads to five days of wild sex in a love hotel. Azuma sells Miffy a ticket to a bad movie. Miffy thinks Azuma doesn’t return her feelings, so she decides to move to Mars. Yasui and Ishihara go on the anti-war protest. The police escort’s uniforms elicit more comment than the war itself. Oblivious to the imminent invasion of Iraq, these hipsters obsess over the details of their lives, perfectly capturing the irony and impotency of Generation Y in Japan today. The story unfolds through actors who slip in and out of character while also narrating and playing out scenes. The play, a winner of the prestigious Kishida Kunio Drama Award, is at once funny, sad, anticlimactic and devastating.

This time out director Dan Safer is remarkably restrained, managing to keep close to the spirit of Okada’s text while adding small flourishes of his generally more flamboyant and spectacular style. Safer draws out the personalities of each of the characters and exaggerates them, he plays for laughs and frequently gets them. Sean Donovan and Mike Mikos are funny as doofus buddies; Donovan and Heather Christian play a very funny scene as the equally awkward Azuma and Miffy. Chris Giarmo and Laura Berlin Stinger play the disaffected protesters Yasui and Ishihara with humorous understatement.

The five days  in question is the time of Minobe and Yukki’s tryst in a love hotel. They both agree that they will not exchange numbers or even learn each other’s names, that this will be an interlude never to be repeated, a five day break from the world as it is. In a shift from the Chelfitsch version, Safer actually plays out some of the scenes on a bed and brings a level of heartbreak to the affair. Kourtney Rutherford’s Yukki only reluctantly agrees to the deal proposed by Wil Petre’s callow Minobe. Rutherford and Petre play the moment subtly and accurately; we feel the pain underneath the indifference. This is an instance where Safer breaks his stylistic approach and uses theatrical naturalism to positive effect.

In general Safer’s interpretation of Okada is a little bigger and more cartoonish than Rothenberg’s. Enjoy was a bit of a “heavier” show than this one, and Rothenberg mined the pathos of these existentially alienated characters while Safer goes for a more lighthearted approach, bringing out their social awkwardness and pushing it to comic extremes. Safer brings in more overt choreography, as opposed to Rothenberg’s understated movements, complete with a dance number and an “11 o’clock number” prior to intermission – a lovely rendering of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” performed by Heather Christian in a space suit in front of a beautiful video projection by Kaz Phillips. The show also has music by Dave Malloy and an omnipresent sound design by Ryan Maeker which is mixed/performed live. This gives the show a punkish, clubbish feel that pushes the Americanization of the show a little further. It feels kind of rough and rude (in a good way). Five Days In March is serious fun.

Comparisons are not really useful in this case. Okada is a remarkable playwright and his characters and situations have resonance with contemporary American audiences. In both cases, the places and characters have Japanese names but the exploration of twentysomeething anomie could be set anywhere. While Rothenberg and Safer approach Okada’s material differently – and worked on different plays – both succeeded. If you didn’t see Enjoy, you missed out on a great opportunity to see a really strong production of the work of one of Japan’s most important contemporary playwrights. This show is equally strong and very entertaining unto itself. So don’t miss out this time!

Five Days In March is playing at LaMama until May 23.

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