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by Maiko Bae Yamamoto, James Long, Manami Hara, Hiro Kanagawa
Theatre Replacement (Vancouver)
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
January 24-28

Ready for something completely different?  For its entry in the PuSh Festival, Vancouver’s Theatre Replacement has created a work that challenges all our familiar notions of “multicultural” theatre.

We’ve become used to dramas about the difficulties of the immigrant experience, about generational conflicts between Canadian-born children and their immigrant parents, about stereotyped attitudes held by mainstream Canadian society towards marginalized, hyphenated “visible minorities.” 

Instead of focusing inward, the three Japanese-Canadian actors and co-writers of this play look outward, toward Japan itself, exploring some widely held notions about the Japanese and their sexual proclivities.  And instead of exploding stereotypes, the play underlines them, using comedy and clever theatricality in some brave and entirely unexpected ways.

In place of geishas we meet the kogals, those sexualized, mini-skirted young women in school uniforms featured in Asian pornography, played in giggly, flirty concert by Manami Hara and Maiko Bae Yamamoto.  They also portray the female employees of the Matsukawa corporation, a high-tech business whose uptight, obsessive, sexually repressed president (Hiro Kanagawa) neglects his wife, bullies his female underlings, and “relaxes” at a bathhouse-cum-brothel.

Intercut with their story is Yamamoto’s narrative of a schoolgirl on a crowded commuter train suffering the indignity and abuse of a man in a suit surreptitiously masturbating as he presses up against her in the crush. The two stories come together in a surprisingly powerful ending, a vivid feminist critique of Japanese patriarchal culture visually represented by twenty gray business suits with white shirts and ties, hanging headless on the stage, that comprise the set.

But first of all the play is a comic satire and sometimes, true to its title, a genuinely sexy one. From the opening moments when the kogals flirtatiously ask an audience member about his associations between sex and Japan, and one does a gender-switching Tom Jones routine with her underpants, it’s clear that we’re going to be having Fun with Ethnicity.

A sequence in which Matsukawa tests its new product line—“the world’s first virtual wireless intercourse enabler,” a system that allows two people to do it without actually touching—is very funny in the style of a Saturday Night Live skit. When Kanagawa’s businessman and Hara’s female employee get together for extra-marital sex in a hotel room, their awkward groping is accompanied by Yamamoto doing karaoke Elvis with a Japanese accent, singing “Rove Me Tender.”  And neither technology nor sex with the boss gets Hara off the way her sexual fantasy about Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki does. That and a baseball bat make for a fantastically erotic scene.

Not everything works in this production co-directed by Yamamoto and James Long with music by Veda Hille. But its entertaining, thought-provoking, sophisticated attitudes towards ethnicity are a welcome and heartening sign.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Thursday, January 26, 2006 1:56 PM
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