The Japanese have had plenty of occasions to wonder about the end of the world, or at least life as they know it. From earthquakes to tsunamis, eruptions to typhoons, the country has had its share of cataclysmic disasters, leading some to wonder, perhaps, when the big one will come. If asked to theorize on the earth’s demise, Americans might snort an annoyed “How should I know?” while the Japanese are far more likely to give the question a thoughtful response.
Yukio Shiba’s play Our Planet is just such a response, an allegory that falls somewhere in the middle of fantasy and science. On paper, the story sounds strange and colorful like a Hayao Miyazaki movie: Earth and Moon grow up in a Tokyo neighborhood, become friends, struggle with their identities, eventually die in a blaze of fire… But this children’s tale is not Shiba’s main concern; rather, it is, or seems to be, the insignificance of human life in the whole vast universe and the power of humankind to alter, even change, definitively, the course of our great mothership.
Shiba’s play won Japan’s leading theater prize, the Kishida Kunio Drama Award, in 2010, proof that it hit a nerve with Shiba’s countrymen, even before the tsunami and nuclear disaster of 2011. Nevertheless, its English-language premiere, which opened last week at the Japan Society, can sometimes feel as remote as Pluto, despite strong performances and a committed attempt to explore Shiba’s allegorical world within the pure spaces of the Japan Society’s landmarked building. Director Alec Duffy (founder of the OBIE-Award winning company Hoi Polloi) gives full rein to the cadences, repetitions and images of Shiba’s metaphorical language just as motion graphics designer Nobuyuki Hanabusa embellishes it with spinning orbs and shimmering star fields, yet the 90 minute site-specific piece never reaches lift-off, pulled back by the clunkiness of the form.
As Terri and Luna, actors Julien Rozzell, Jr. and Jenny Seastone Stern, manage admirably as multiple characters and as our guides on this 90 minute tour of the public and administrative spaces of the building, which begins in its glassy atrium, meanders through the basement and stair wells, visits the library and office cubicles and finally ends on the auditorium’s stage. However, the production relies overmuch on our interest in exploring those spaces to follow Terri and Luna’s story around for an hour and a half, through girl fights and school trips, pregnancy and the existential questions any self-respecting planet would have: will I die by burning up? are my galactic neighbors nice? why do my moons resist my gravitational pull? do Mom and Dad love me?…
Read as an exploration of life on Earth rather than the life of Earth, the text entertains slightly more accessible issues such as the sustainability of human existence on a planet challenged equally by global warming and its consequences, increased carbon emissions by developing economies, the threat of diminished food and fresh water supplies and the lack of commitment by governments to wrestle with these. These are alluded to ever so briefly in a repeated passage that serves as a kind of prologue and afterword to Terri’s story. But if it is indeed Shiba’s primary preoccupation, it’s to be regretted that it is not meaningfully developed, if that’s possible, through the tale of friendship between a planet and its satellite.