What You See May Not Be What You Get: ‘Girl X’
The advent of texting and e-mails as ways of instant communication has not only changed the nature of human interaction; it’s also become a significant factor in plays and films, where projected or inserted words become part of the performative discourse. Japanese avant-garde writer director Suguru Yamamoto and the theatre collective he founded, Hanchu-Yuei, take this idea to a new level in their offbeat work, Girl X (Yōjo X), presented this weekend at the Japan Society as part of its annual performing arts program. It was performed in English at the Japan Society last spring in a staged reading.
Two expressive young actors, Kazuki Ohashi and Sachiro Nomoto, perform Girl X, which runs an hour, on a bare stage. Upstage is a large screen; at the stage lip is a powerful projector. The two actors, designated 1 and 2 in the script, play several characters, named and unnamed, male and female, without any attempt to alter their voices or behavior as the words the characters speak and send by text are projected, in English and Japanese.
The text sometimes identifies the speaker, and sometimes not. Spoken lines are also projected and an English-speaking audience may be forgiven for occasionally wondering which lines are subtitles to help follow the action and which are there simply to replicate the spoken words, even for Japanese speakers. On several occasions, long passages ensue during which only text is shown and no one speaks. The opening sequence, for example, does this when a baby in the womb begs his mother to end his life before he’s born. Yamamoto has spoken of his fondness of writing not just words to hear, but “words for the eye.”
There’s no denying that the projections, often spread across brilliantly colored backgrounds, are artfully designed, using a variety of font styles and sizes; some are still (like numerous Chinese characters for “cry”) and some show movement, including a video of the sea. There also may be geometric forms suggesting a dining table or TV, or a diagram naming characters in a particular scene.
As ominous thrumming plays, the actors, their hair wildly coiffed, appear both singly and together, moving in carefully choreographed patterns that cast their huge, looming shadows on the screen, like grotesque images from an expressionistic nightmare. Actor 1’s movements are made even more threatening by the wooden hammer he wields. In a dining room scene, the actors lie on the floor, placing their feet on the screen on either side of a table image, as if they were being observed from overhead.
Because of the abstract techniques it’s often difficult to follow the narrative or to know who’s speaking at every point. Since there is definitely a narrative, Yamamoto’s methods, interesting as they are, become an end in themselves and do little to clarify the nature of his story. I had to read the script (in a slightly incomplete version) twice, once before the show and once after, to make sure I knew what it was about.
It also doesn’t help matters, even with diagrammatic projections, that Actor 2, in his guise as the younger brother of a married sister, refers throughout to his sister’s ex-boyfriend as the Bacterium, to his mother as the Blood Platelet, to his sister’s little girl as the Red Blood Cell, to himself as the White Blood Cell, and to his sister as the Cut in which those other hematological elements vie for control.
The play, first produced in 2013, is inspired by the unease created in Japan following the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami of 2011. The narrative, though, while filled with disquieting fears and anxieties, ignores that 2011 disaster to track the behavior of a “Man,” played by Actor 1, who was once the boyfriend of a woman named Akemi, now married to a surgeon, with whom she’s the mother of a little girl, Yo-chan. He carries a hammer, counts the “alienation points” he’s accumulating, and is on the lookout for “the enemy.”
Countering him is Ryota, Akemi’s younger brother, played by Actor 2, another lost soul who’s preoccupied with how frizzy his pillow makes his hair, and holds the Man responsible for causing Akemi to slash her wrists (thus his name for her, the Cut). Eventually we learn of a series of rape-murders of little girls, and of the relationship to them of the characters in the story.
Regardless of its dramatic potential, Girl X seems mainly interested in using its narrative to experiment with its unique combination of live action and projected images. While it may be fascinated by the nature of modern communication, that doesn’t prevent it from having communication problems of its own.
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Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).