. . . By Samuel L. Leiter
March 11, 2021 marked the passing of ten years since one of the most catastrophic disasters in modern history. That, of course, is the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Fukushima, Japan, an otherwise natural, if horrific, occurrence that was worsened exponentially when it damaged coastal nuclear reactors, setting off a radioactive holocaust.
As it happens, I was scheduled to fly to Tokyo for a research trip just around the time of the disaster. Although travelers were being warned to stay away, I still had to deal with annoying airline red tape to cancel and reschedule my flight for May. Even then, visiting Tokyo, only 142 miles from the nuclear fallout, seemed risky. When I got to Tokyo, a sense of caution was obvious everywhere. Power had not been fully restored, but, for the most part, things were more or less normal. My own issues, however, were like fly specks compared to the tragic consequences experienced by the Japanese people, especially those in Fukushima.
How, then, does a playwright confront such a tragedy? How does the theatre express a cataclysm of such unbelievable proportions? Do you go macro—which, perhaps, only film can do—or micro—examining the effects on a small number of individuals, standing in for the countless others similarly affected? In Ludic Proxy: Fukushima playwright Aya Ogawa—who happens, IMO, to be the sharpest translator of modern Japanese plays around—chooses the latter, a choice made only more microscopic by its current iteration as a streaming performance presented by the Japan Society in association with PlayCo.
Some background: Ludic Proxy was first presented Off Broadway at Tribeca’s Walker Space in 2015. I didn’t see that production, which was in three parts, each dealing with a particular society’s reaction to a radioactive event. The first part dealt with Chernobyl, the second with Fukushima, and the third with a future terrible event in New York City, with Central Park turned into a huge cemetery. Little did the playwright know in 2015 that the pandemic was waiting in the wings.
The play was performed in the round, in Japanese, with projected subtitles. It also sought audience participation by stopping the action at set places and asking the audience to respond—using a system of paddles—to questions regarding how the action should continue. For example, should a character get the news by reading a paper or watching TV? As in all such works, Ludic Proxy’s actors were prepared to do alternate scenes depending on the vote.
A similar approach is used in the virtual production, although the paddles have been replaced by popup questions that you click on and then “submit.” I’m informed that this is a video game trope. The last video game I played was Pacman, so I’m really in no position to comment on this aspect.
After a second or two, the results appear, showing the percentage of how many voted for one or the other answers. Such an audience-based procedure is not new—there have been other works that operated on similar principles—but some may find that it helps to keep them involved in the action. However, if you’re the kind of person annoyed by pop up ads, you may find this approach intrusive. Also, given the essential simplicity of the circumstances, it’s hard not to feel that the playwright is giving you the job of working out problems that would normally be her own responsibility; in other words, having her cake and eating it.
(A side-note: the most complex work I know of in which the audience choices play a role in what it sees—with multiple outcomes available—is Tamara, seen in 1981 at the Park Avenue Armory.)
Ludic Proxy: Fukushima has replaced the Chernobyl scene with a brief, filmed, actor-less prologue covering that infamous incident, with the camera scanning miniature furniture in a wonderful doll house, built by designer Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew, as a voiceover provides necessary information. Only the Fukushima section follows, the New York material being omitted.
During the Fukushima segment, we see a split screen, with an actress in each, the same ones from 2015. They play sisters, Maho (Saori Tsukada), on our left, Miki (Yuki Kawahisa), on the right. These fine performers speak in Japanese, accompanied by subtitles. It’s four years since the earthquake/tsunami and Maho is visiting from Tokyo.
Covid-19 restrictions have forced the actors to perform in separate locations. Miki, seen in an actual apartment or house, is seated on the floor to the right of a coffee table set in front of a couch with a patterned red slipcover. Maho, to our left, is supposed to be in the same room, but her space (whose actual nature has been disguised) is entirely white, including the table.
A perhaps greater than usual suspension of disbelief is required to ignore the discontinuity but you get used to it, more or less, as the work progresses. Thus, when a prop passes across the table from frame to frame, and from dark wood table to stark white one, we’re asked to accept that it’s moving across the same unit. Blocking is held to a minimum. When Maho rises and continues standing, the camera remains stationary, so she’s seen only from the waist down.
The situation is basic, and acted in a deliberately restrained, almost affectless manner, with long, Pinteresque pauses. The tone remains somber, alienated even, a coolness exacerbated both by the sisters’ distance from each other at opposite sides of the screen and their actual existence in different locales. Just before a question pops up, a sister, usually Maho, leans into the camera with a look combining intense anticipation with apprehension, although most of the questions are quite benign.
We learn little about the specifics of the disaster, although its pervasive presence is made clear by the presence of a dosimeter, a small device that registers radiation, clicking like a Geiger counter. The women talk largely about things like their dad being on dialysis and Maho’s concern for the wellbeing of the depressed Miki, whose pregnancy—she’s married to the unseen Shigeru—may be compromised. Maho invites Miki to stay with her in Tokyo. There are several momentarily dramatic touches, including an earthquake.
At the end, the biggest question of all pops up: should Maho leave or stay and help her sister?
The live performances were supplemented by commentary from Yoko Shioya, the admirable artistic director of the Japan Society, and a lively Q&A with the gifted Aya Ogawa herself, via an online chat. Ludic Proxy: Fukushima reveals both the promise and drawbacks of virtual dramatic performance. The inspiration for its creation is powerful. It also reminds us of how difficult it is for theatre, live or streaming, to confront such soul-crushing circumstances.
An “on demand” version will be available March 12 – 26, which will incorporate real-time input from the solo viewer as opposed to collective audience polling (collective audience polling takes place only in the three original presentations: March 6, 7, 11).
More info can be found at www.japansociety.org/performingarts. Tickets can be purchased online at www.japansociety.org/event/ludic-proxy-fukushima or by calling the Japan Society Box Office at 212-715-1258 (M-F 10:00AM – 6:00PM).