What if Saori Had a Party?
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
October 23, 2007
To get an idea of the landscape of What if Saori Had a Party?, the inventive music/dance/performance/karaoke piece playing at P.S. 122, imagine for a moment that you are a charming and fiendishly upbeat Japanese Anime-Children's Show Host sealed forever in what the program refers to as a "protective computerized bubble." You wake up one morning of your happy life and realize it's your birthday. The realization comes without notice and fills you with joy. You lie in bed, taking in all the wonderful feelings a birthday implies: parties, presents, cakes, streamers, candles, music, and friends to share it with.
But then, just as you're about to leap into the day, a voice—cold and robotic—sounds from nowhere and announces that it is not really your birthday. There will be no cake, no streamers, no candles, no presents, no music, no celebration, and no friends. On top of that, Death, disguised as a Singing Telegram Man, arrives at your door, bearing a gift so profound and unexpected that it will change the course and the length of your life.
Knowing this you might wonder what John Moran, the show's director/composer, and Saori Tsukada, the choreographer and leading lady, have against birthdays. You might also wonder if they even celebrate birthdays and, if so what kind of parties do they have and what decorations do they put on their cakes? But to do so would be to miss the point entirely. Moran and Tsukada's buoyant staging and their ingenious use of a soundtrack resembling an MGM musical taken to manic extremes energize this dark and strange premise and, through their exploration of Japanese and American culture, create a compelling rumination on the havoc mortality wreaks on the illusions we hold onto throughout our lives and the inevitability of growing old.
Saori lives her happy life in the aforementioned computerized bubble. Laughter and applause accompany her every appearance. Happy music and bright lights fill her digitized space, revealing any obstacle that might distract from her trouble-free existence, She is constantly on display, continually performing, doing her best to please her audience.
The pleasure of these early scenes stems from the zeal that Saori works with the soundtrack to carve out the physical space of her existence. Saori sees something on the bare stage, walks over to it, bends over and smiles. We then hear the sound of a dog. Saori outlines the dog with her hand, pets it, looks at the audience and smiles gleefully. These gestures serve multiple functions: they show us the elasticity of the theatrical space; they demonstrate the harmony in which Saori exists with her environment and the harmony in which Saori's environment cooperates with her; and they establish the quotidian nature of this world.
Once that disembodied voice is heard, though, the cracks begin to appear. The first appears in this faceless, robotic announcement that it's not really her birthday and that she doesn't even have a birthday. The second crack appears in the guise of Singing Telegram Man (STM), a candy-coated uniformed man who looks as if he came straight out of a production of The Nutcracker. STM is a seemingly innocent man whose superpower—causing anything he touches to freeze—will later be used to eerie effect.
The final crack appears courtesy of STM, who presents Saori with The Baby, who wears a puffy white dress. Like most children her coordination is humorously jumbled. She spits, cries, dances, trips, bounces a basketball, repeats herself, and looks far and wide for her lost father. Her vulnerability provides Saori with the opportunity to become a nurturer, which Saori does with her usual enthusiasm. When the Baby arrives, Moran gives us a tender moment between the two, choreographed to the tune of 'Rock-A-Bye Baby" which presents their relationship in its purest form. It's a moment full of warmth and tenderness and I found myself wishing it would go on forever.
I don't think I'm ruining anything by telling you that even though the program doesn't state it, the press packet and P.S. 122's website reveal that STM represents 'Death' and The Baby represents 'Youth'. Knowing this, it makes sense why the tenderness cannot last. The remainder of the show follows Saori's attempts to deal with the ensuing chaos brought about by the faceless voice, Death, and Youth. This battle is filled with raw and unnerving images: the more Saori tries to protect Youth, the more helpless they both become; the more she tries to hold off Death, the more dominating he becomes; and the more she withstands the faceless voice's brutality, the more brutal his retaliations become. The clash is made more powerful by its gradual then sudden nature and her last stand against this three-pronged attack is about as haunting a sequence you're likely to see in a theatre.
What if Saori Had a Party? succeeds on the strength of its cast and the precision of its score. Saori Tsukada, Joseph Keckler, and Katie Brook work well with Moran's nuanced score, feeding off its rhythms and infusing these interactions with life and character. The dialogue is lip-synched via voiceover and while the effect is jarring at first, the actors handle this with such skill that it becomes one of numerous theatrical devices to be marveled at and enjoyed.
Moran, Tsukada, and the rest of their collaborators are in possession of a unique theatrical vision. If you are interested in what makes theatre a singular experience, or are interested in having a good time, this is a show worth your attention.