nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
May 29, 2012
What seems at first to be a quirky piece of anthropological inquiry—a trip behind the scenes of a Japanese theatrical subculture unfamiliar to American audiences—slowly reveals itself to be something more complex, something much darker, stranger, and richer. Susan Soon He Stanton’s Takarazuka!!! constantly holds mirrors up to itself; it’s filled with doubled and halved and twinned identities (character and performer; star and understudy; male and female; gender and sexual identity; Japanese visions of Western culture and Western misunderstandings of Japan; innate and learned; facade and core; performer and fan; authenticity and affectation—and I could go on), shadow—even ghost—selves, and painful explorations of the gap between the polite face presented to the world and the raw truth concealed beneath it. Its central characters, a star performer about to retire and return to “normal” life and a journalist pursuing a story in a culture he’s continually excluded from, are constantly confronting the limits of their abilities to bridge, to understand, and to live within these gaps.
The piece is set among the players of the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female performance troupe that for nearly a hundred years has put on melodramatic spectacles, often adapted from Western literary works ranging from Charles Dickens novels to Shakespeare plays to Singin’ in the Rain and other classic musicals. Its performers are divided during their training into otokoyaku, who play only the male roles (like Yuko Tanaka, the retiring star here), and musemeyaku, who play only the female ones.
One thing that draws fans (historically primarily women) to Takarazuka is the way male heroes are embodied by female performers. Stanton makes this dynamic explicit early, as a journalist interviews two effusive fans, a mother and daughter (the closest contemporary Western equivalent would probably be if Justin Bieber’s fan base included the mothers of all his teen girl worshipers), about why they love their chosen stars: because a woman acting in a male role can create an ideal man, one who knows how to love them properly. And, conversely, one of the things that draws the performers’ families to send their daughters to be trained by Takarazuka is the belief that the experience of being an actress will ultimately make them better wives.
Takarazuka!!! starts onstage: we see a musical number and the climactic love scene between (what appears to be) a dashing young man in a Guys-and-Dolls-style pinstripe suit and fedora, and his lady love, glowing in a delicate beaded dress. The performances are melodramatic and stylized; the costumes, music, and dances (beautifully choreographed throughout by Tracy Bersley) are almost stereotypically Hollywood, but there’s still something about them that’s a little broader, a little more over-the-top, than what you’d expect to see in an American movie or on Broadway. And of course, both the performers are women: Yuko Tanaka as the hero, full of courtliness and machismo, and Chifumi Kami as the ingenue, delicate and simpering. Even backstage, their relationship mirrors these roles: Chifumi is deferential, modest, apologetic—as traditional a model of Japanese femininity as you could find—while Yuko is brusque and direct, not afraid to criticize her co-star or challenge an interviewer.
Half-Japanese BBC correspondent Nigel Parker is making a documentary about the company, and soon focuses on Yuko, as she prepares to return to life as a dutiful Japanese daughter in the tiny rural community she fled for the theater. In all likelihood, she is destined to become a “Christmas cake” (an unmarried woman over 25, still tasty but undesirable after her appropriate season has passed). When she takes her final triumphant bow, Yuko will pass her top star mantle on to Rui, who has been training as an exact replica of Tanaka: same haircut, same costume, same mannerisms. At the moment of handoff, the two will literally play identical twins, although there are definite differences between the ways the two performers, Jennifer Ikeda as Yuko and Angela Lin as Rui, approach masculinity—Lin with more charm and Ikeda with more swagger. Ikeda’s performance is general is a mixture of show and restraint; her male traits, as Yuko tells Nigel, are all gestures and affectations, but she’s so thoroughly internalized them that she almost disappears when she puts them aside.
As Yuko struggles with her new life, she keeps encountering the same three figures. The first is Nigel, still pursuing his final interview, even as his inability to be either fully part of or fully separate from Japanese culture keeps tripping him up. The second is Junko, a young fan who follows Yuko to the country, unable to accept that her hero has become a girl like herself. And the third is the ghost of Akane, a former Takarasienne, who threatens Yuko’s resolve to remain offstage. (For me, the ghost/Yuko relationship was perhaps one doubling too many; it’s striking visually and perhaps irresistible metaphorically—especially in the one scene where Nigel, Akane, Junko, and Yuko come together—but it felt a little too literal.)
Yuko’s ability to adjust may hinge on her relationship with Nigel. He’s a surrogate for the audience a lot of time, used to tease out necessary exposition, and as such it takes a while to understand how central his role also is. (Paul Juhn does well with the bafflement but I wished he had a little more warmth.) Yuko and Nigel, in a way, mirror each other: both performing male roles in Japanese culture that they can’t ever fully inhabit, Yuko because she’s a woman and Nigel because he’s a gaijin, a foreigner. The difference is, Yuko understands the position she’s in far better than Nigel does.
In keeping with the constant array of mirrors and doubles, Stanton and director Lear de Bessonet also double-cast most of the roles: the director of Takarazuka and Yuko’s father (Glenn Kubota, stoic as father Otousan and with a touch of impish humor as director Ariyoshi); Chifumi and Junko (Brooke Ishibashi, making Junko as girlishly awkward as Chifumi is professionally feminine); Rui and Akane, both in a way Yuko’s nemesis (Angela Lin, whose boyish charm as Rui turns dark and rueful as Akane).
Yet, despite all the layers, despite the focus on performance and theatricality, the moment that will stick with me is perhaps the play’s simplest scene: a conversation between two men on a train that cracks open the play, shifting it from something smart and intellectually engaging to something potentially emotionally devastating as well.