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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: Hot Pepper (FTA 2011)

(Photo: Toru Yokota)

Can We Add Some Salt To That, Too?
Japan's HOT PEPPER… needs a bit more spice
By David King

To fully understand Japanese creator Toshiki Okadia's theatre triptych HOT PEPPER, AIR CONDITIONER, AND THE FAREWELL SPEECH, one has to not only be open to a lesson in Japanese language and culture, but to keep in mind that each work in this theatre trilogy originated with one successful, much-shorter creation HOT PEPPER. In this production, it's definitely important to read the programme notes from the writer / director before the piece opens. As a little experiment for myself, I intentionally didn't, just to see how much this theatrical painting could stand alone without explanation.

(Photo: Toru Yokota)
Presented together until June 4 at Festival TransAmériques (FTA), Okada's one-hour trilogy sticks to his usual themes of youth, economic hardship, and his own background in the world of temporary office employees to make ends meet. As Okada is just as inspired by Brechtian aesthetic over Noh and Kabuki, it was difficult to gage what I could expect from the writer / director's staging here, which combines physical and musical abstraction with a heightened formality in design. The result is an interesting marriage of Japanese and Brechtian theatricality.

Immediately banal, repetitive and movement-based, each of the three pieces in HOT PEPPER… explores the idioms of a younger generation in language, where (as Okada himself notes) "the same phrase will be repeated, with no lyricism whatsoever and no apparent structure." One hundred percent choreographed (the performers gestures are fine-tuned down to the touching of a face or the cross of a leg), everything here, music too, is intentionally out-of-sync, perhaps a symbol of inner chaos that's ultimately not all that different than that awkwardness we Westerners see every week on the TV comedy The Office. 

Hot Pepper is a free monthly magazine in Tokyo full of coupons and town information like restaurants, shops, services etc. It's also the starting point of Okada's play, as three office temps decide on the who, what and where of a farewell party for another temp who's leaving the company. In AIR CONDITIONER, two more employees conduct a water cooler conversation on the unbearable ups and downs of temperature, before the departing office temp says her rather absurd goodbyes to the group in THE FAREWELL SPEECH.
(Photo: Toru Yakota)

Separately, each piece is at its perfect mini-length. Put together as an hour packed with the same repetition one would expect from students conducting an exercise in theatre school, the monotony quickly caught on with the audience yawners, a few of whom left while others were left scratching their head post-performance with a "WTF was that?" that echoed through the lobby. They did not, like me it seems, read their programmes, where one can find out more about Okada's cubist theatre company Chelfitsch, along with why his work has been met with acclaim in cities like Tokyo, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Singapore and New York.

Simply put, this trilogy attempts to explore the deterioration of Japan's economy and its impact on today's Japanese youth. The granularity of the play's office workers is enough to get that subject across, but unfortunately, the language and endurance forced upon the audience to come to terms with it all is a lot to expect. 

There are some terrific laughs in HOT PEPPER…, particularly when the dialogue moves into even more redundant directions than we thought was possible. We've all had those trite office moments, talking up our co-workers over nothing more than what salad we just had for lunch. To a younger Facebook and Twitter generation, the dialogue in HOT PEPPER… could almost be a series of those lifeless status updates that make us all wonder why online social networking is important in our lives. In that context, and in the context of Japan's economic bubble burst , it's easy to see why a trilogy like Okada's could be created for us. For now, however, it's more an experiment with form than substance, and this one is going to need a lot more spicing up to satisfy the palette. 

HOT PEPPER, AIR CONDITIONER, AND THE FAREWELL SPEECH continues until June 4th at Place des Arts' Cinquième Salle as part of the FTA. Visit their site for more info or tickets.

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