nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 2, 2007
Imagine a wooden box about the size of a two-person camping tent, entered by a door in one corner, or a hatch in the top, and maybe seven feet square with a pitched roof so that only a small child could stand upright inside. Imagine sleeping in that box, inside a larger room, or as a sort of treehouse, or in an attic or a basement. Then imagine living in that box for years, by choice—imagine dying in that box.
Hikikomori, a puzzling social phenomenon in Japan, is the act of shutting oneself away, of voluntarily choosing to remain inside one's room, with little or no contact with the outside world, for years. It's estimated that as many as one million Japanese adolescents and young adults, 80 percent of them male, are hikikomoris, for as little as one year or as long as fifteen years.
Yoji Sakate's play The Attic explores the contradictory emotions stirred by this phenomenon—fear, attraction, repulsion, longing—by creating an artificial container for them: an "attic," a wooden shelter built by an elusive company that manufactures them by hand and sells them over the Internet to Japanese adolescents and adults, who retreat into them. The play takes place, but for a few incidental scenes, entirely within that box. The box sits in the middle of the stage with darkness all around it, a simple, stark wooden enclosure with an open fourth wall and a series of hatches, doors, and trapdoors that allow different modes of entrance and egress for different scenes.
Although there is a nominal throughline—after his younger brother dies inside an "original-model" attic, a man searches for the manufacturer and encounters other attic-dwellers along the way—the play as a whole is more of an impressionistic journey than a narrative. Sakate isn't delving into the psychology of an individual who chooses this existence so much as tapping into a rich vein of primal emotions and symbols through a range of anecdotes and snapshots. Depending on the perspective of each scene and even each character within a scene, the "attic" can be a refuge, a trap, a sanctuary, a metaphorical womb, or a prison—and there are certain scenes whose significance remains quite mysterious to me. Despite, or perhaps because of, its nonlinear storytelling, the play is oddly effective in an intuitive, back-brained way without entirely making sense or hanging together logically on a literal or conscious level. The nontraditional, or non-literal, casting—the translated play is set squarely and specifically in Japan but the acting ensemble is multi-ethnic and mostly non-Asian—contributes to the sense of operating on an archetypal level.
Certain characters do recur, with smaller continuing stories embedded within the larger "attic-world": an adolescent girl who's been humiliated at school, a violent man whose mother is too terrified of him to try to intervene in his behavior, a childlike young woman who may be bearing a child herself. There are certain images that recur as well—notably a preoccupation with samurai movies, war movies, and detective movies, represented by a pair of stylized figures who appear in the attic in different guises and flip coins that always turn up tails, recalling the meditations on fate and destiny in the opening scenes of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. There's also the "Attic Hunter," a mysterious figure seemingly connected to the mythology of the attic itself, who may—or may not—be summoned by attic-dwellers in need.
But the central figure of the play, rather than being any of the characters, is really the attic itself: Takeshi Kata's exquisitely simple rough-wood puzzle-box, which looks almost like a child's playhouse when empty but somehow manages not to make the actors look disproportionate when they crouch inside of it. Tyler Micoleau's wonderfully eloquent lighting design stands in for set dressing, transforming the ambience of the space from scene to scene through simple shifts in the light that spills into the attic from the periphery of the space.
It's hard for a director and actors to keep things visually alive and interesting when the actors can't stand up or move freely. Director Ari Edelson and a versatile ensemble do a wonderful job of keeping the energy high and the specific emotions evoked by each scene clear. I found the women, all in various roles, particularly good—Michi Barall as both a teacher who yearns for solitude and a mother terrified of her own son; Emily Donahoe as a teenager retreating to a tree house; Fiona Gallagher as an exasperated mother and a yearning young woman. But despite the generally very strong performances, it's the ideas and the emotions surrounding hikikomori, rather than the characters or their stories, that linger.