Time’s Journey Through a Room sounds like a shudderingly abstract story idea, until you experience Toshiki Okada’s play as directed by Dan Rothenberg for The Play Company.
That’s not to say that Time’s Journey is a fully quantifiable entity. Okada first emerged as the juvenile delinquent of contemporary Japanese theater, writing in a hyper-realistic vernacular of Tokyo twenty-somethings and developing a cryptically stylized physical language with his chelfitsch (“selfish”) company. With Time’s Journey, the now 45-year old Okada offers a deeply meditative piece on loss, memory and survival in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
But if time is a journey from past to present to future, Okada lends these realms physical form through a love triangle: Honoka, a dead woman; Kazuki, her widower; and the pretty, young Arisa, an emissary from the future, who will help the grieving Kazuki remove himself from the past and look forward with hope. Under Rothenberg’s laser-pointed direction and the equally precise performances of the very fine trio of actors, time is seen and felt as a continuum, in real time (aided by Aya Ogawa’s smooth translation).
Honoka, as played by the vibrant Yuki Kawahisa, at first is the focus of our attention, and she is certainly a charming presence, with her long black braid, wide smile and childlike grace. She flits around the apartment she shared with Kazuki before she died four days after the tsunami, tip-toeing around the contours of shadows on the floor, flopping playfully on the sofa and relentlessly teasing Kazuki with stories of their lives together. Kensaku Shinohara exudes both weariness and untapped resolve as the silent Kazuki, accepting the presence of this beloved ghost who ties him to the past, at the same time that he opens a door into the future.
Anna Kiraly’s set is defined by that door, which throws an almost threatening shadow at a skewered angle across the sunflower yellow floor. Into a typically Japanese design minimalism, Kiraly injects the bold colors and lines of Expressionism, an apt reference for the characters’ struggles to exteriorize and grapple with repressed emotions since the disaster.
Arisa will walk through that door and change everything, and there is nothing unusual in this disruptive plot device. Except that the play is told from Arisa’s point of view, from the future looking back at the present she is entering. As Arisa, Maho Honda’s tone is as matter-of-fact as a clock’s turning hands: “I will come into this room in a little while” and “become [Kazuki’s] new girlfriend,” she alerts us early on, in one of the play’s meta-theatrical asides. Honda’s Arisa is slight and unassuming, yet she proves already to be a tsunami-like force to be reckoned with.
You could say that force is time. Whereas Honoka and Kazuki’s encounters take place in a ghostly ether or perhaps only in Kazuki’s imagination, Arisa lives in the world of time and all of its crashing events. In another aside, she tells us of car accidents and snarled traffic and a dwindling phone battery and the appointment she has to keep with Kazuki, so that she arrives breathless and anxious. Time stops for no man; time’s demands, as embodied by Arisa, can also be interpreted as destiny, sealing Kazuki’s progression from past to future, an inevitability he recognizes: “While I am living, I cannot help but continue to change,” he confides in Arisa, while Honoka looks on powerlessly from her nostalgic past. “Everything changes, and I can only change with it.”
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami were metaphorical upheavals for Japanese society as much as they brought tangible destruction to the Fukushima region. Honoka remembers that event as a “transformation” that ushered in a kinder, more neighborly society “when indifference died.” Yet Okada evidently questions whether such optimism was justified and if anything has truly changed; Arisa’s experiences in the tumultuous world beyond the apartment suggest they haven’t. Kawahisa, too, finds a naiveté for her ghost that puts her in opposition with the earnest groundedness of Arisa and Kazuki. They remember the trauma of 2011 and live with the anxiety of a future catastrophe but their best response to those challenges, in order to keep breathing in the present, is not to seek community but rather a private and intimate comfort.
PlayCo’s production is preceded by an enigmatic prologue: a moving light projection by Amith Chandrashaker that calls to mind a 3-D box, a tunnel, an eye, or perhaps the four-dimensional continuum of spacetime. I’m not sure what it meant but it seemed a fitting abstraction of this journey of time through the space of a room and the higher spheres yet of emotion, imagination and memory.
Time’s Journey Through a Room runs to June 10, 2018 at A.R.T./New York Theatres. More production info can be found here.