The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise: In brief
The Play Company continues its commitment to world theater with Toshiki Okada's look at anomie amid the under-30 set in Japan. Dan Rothenberg (of Philly's wonderful Pig Iron Theatre Company) directs an adaptation by Aya Ogawa.
The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Those who have seen other Toshiki Okada pieces (like Zero Cost House, Enjoy and Five Days in March) will already know the Japanese playwright's droll, cool voice. Okada is a poet of dry hours, a creator of arch, downbeat comedies in which disoriented young people gather, chat and despair. If you're coming unprepared to The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise, though, gird yourself for an adjustment period: In the first moments of the show, you realize that little will happen, time will drag. That's as it should be.
Okada (and his outstanding English translator, Aya Ogawa) have discovered a disturbing, naturalistic idiom that somehow slows down reality. In his airless worlds, banality drugs perception. “I really hope my life improves compared to the way it is now,” muses an actor in sweatpants (Jason Quarles). “That may be something you think, but to actually say it out loud… It's something you shouldn't articulate, so I keep it a secret.” There are cri de coeur moments like this scattered throughout Sonic Life, all delivered in this same diffident manner.
Ambling around an off-center slice of conference room (Mimi Lien has designed another perfect, hermetic set) are four (sometimes five) people who seem to share a set of preoccupations, even an identity. One (or many) of them is a man who fantasizes that his girlfriend is dead. He hankers after emotion—any emotion; the potential loss of his girlfriend, he thinks, might imbue his life with poignancy. The girlfriend (played by Susannah Flood and Rachel Christopher) yearns ineffectively for travel, though her reaction to a simple subway ride—she dreams the train descends into the belly of the earth—bodes ill for any foreign ventures. The actors trade roles, sometimes enacting one of the character's unconscious selves. “What I'm doing now, actually, despite what it looks like, is having a dream,” says Flood, pointing to Moses Villarama as he executes a slow-motion somersault.
Pig Iron's Dan Rothenberg also directed Enjoy for the Play Company, so there's a sense of lived-in ease here among players and production. It takes no time at all for us to lapse into the play's strange hypnosis; we drift in weird waters, occasionally startled into awareness by Christopher's piercing sidelong glances. I admit I can find Okada's pieces almost too effective, in that they slow my heartbeat and my focus can slide. But then a character will say, without inflection, that he hopes his daily life can somehow connect to something bigger, and warm drowsiness is shocked awake by cold. These are the serious questions, and I, like these characters, may be sleeping through them. In those moments, the play feels like a knife in the gut.—Theater review by Helen Shaw