I love Japan. Ever since my trip to Tokyo in spring of 2007, I have been enthralled by the culture, the language, the food–everything. So hearing about Toshiki Okada’s new play Enjoy got me really excited.
Okada is a Japanese playwright and a representative of the “Japanese lost generation…of 25-35 year olds,” as stated in the program. I remember first hearing about him during January’ s Hot Ink Festival–an annual play reading extravaganza that celebrates international playwrights–and I was intrigued by the comments I heard about his unique writing style. His plays are translated from Japanese slang into English, making for a fascinating cultural crossover. Needless to say, I was pretty pumped to see this show.
Enjoy takes place in a manga cafe in Tokyo, a uniquely Japanese recreation facility with food, showers, karaoke, comic books, and even napping services. The atmosphere of the theatre transported me instantly back to Tokyo, with hip, electronic music blasting, and the set’s powder pink floor tiles radiating under the fluorescent lights. Even the programs kept with the theme, designed like menus that numbered the actors like fast food items.
Once the play started I began to understand the comments and critiques I had heard about Okada’s writing technique. The play is heavily dialogue based, and the words themselves are colloquial and are delivered in a stream-of-consciousness manner. The actors stop mid-sentence, talk over themselves, and jump around to different parts of their story, just like conversation in real life. At first the show may have been hard to follow, but I really appreciated how Okada captured the vernacular of 21st Century language. Listen in on any conversation in the subway station–maybe a girl telling her friend about last night’s date–and her speech will be riddled with idiomatic “likes” and “ums” and “wait, no but FIRST’s”. It was like watching my everyday conversations, only more artfully crafted.
The play contemplates the main themes of age, gender, and relationships, and revolves around a group of part-time employees in the manga café. The characters are obsessed with age and have segregated themselves accordingly –those in their 20’s often mocking their slightly older coworkers, while the 30-year-old’s brood about how they feel that their lives are over. For example, in Act I a scandal breaks out in the work place because one of the 30-somethings asks the new girl on a date. The only problem is that this new girl is 22 (“so young!”). The play only loosely follows a plot line, however, and is mainly a cultural and social examination of living in modern day Japan, being in love, and having a few decades under your belt.
Listening to the dialogue, I felt as though Okada had entered the human mind with a tape recorder and had transcribed every thought that passed though the person’s head. His ability to verbalize train of thought is astounding–the characters would speak through their thought processes, analyzing a situation from every possible angle, dancing circles, squares, and polyhedrons around the main point. Though at times this was admittedly tiresome to listen to, the more I focused, the more I realized how much I related, recognizing my own thinking patterns in the ramblings on stage.
I also appreciate how Okada deviated from theatrical tradition with this play, redefining the relationship between characters, actors, and audience members. The performers in the show were not so much “actors” as envoys of storytelling, weaving in and out of narration and enaction. The roles were interchangeable, as one performer would step in for another and take on a different facet of the same role, either continuing the thought process or offering commentary on it. Interestingly, it was always easy to tell who was playing whom at what time. With a play like this I feel that it would have been easy for the actors to run off with the words, leaving the audience in the dust. But in this production, the actors securely buckled us in to the roller coaster of a play, subtly altering their physicality and intonations when inhabiting a new character.
Okada also achieved something with this play that I have seldom experienced. As an audience member, I felt as though I mattered. The characters would often consult the audience in their monologues, as if seeking counsel or confirmation, even peeking nervously in our direction during uncomfortable encounters on stage. This made me feel as though I played a vital role at these moments in the characters’ lives, like they needed me there to advise and comfort them, which invested me further in the performance. Because I mattered to the characters, they conversely mattered to me.
Throughout the play, however, I kept wondering how this English translation differed from the original transcription. Watching a contextually Japanese play transposed on to American actors was a bit awkward, to be honest, as Japan has such a richly unique culture. However, the universal themes of the play overcame that issue for me, as any human being can relate to fears of aging and that enigma called love.
Enjoy is a complex, innovative play that brings theatre to a new dimension. Its thought-provoking subject matter connects the actors to the audience and vice versa, making for a stimulating theatrical experience. This is the type of play that you will want to talk about for days after you have seen it. The show is running until April 25th at 59E59, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:15, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:15, Saturdays at 2:15, and Sundays at 3:15. I highly recommend seeing this show if you get the chance—enjoy!