Go to Thread Hell
|April 16, 2013||Posted by Scott Robertson under Staff Reviews|
Scott Robertson is a writer for Hitting The Stage. He has appeared as an actor on many of Hawai‘i’s stages.
A wildly raked platform juts from the center of an otherwise unadorned stage. A light fog hangs in the air and we see Cocoon (Leah Koeppel) emerge from the sea. She doesn’t know or remember who she is, but she wishes to find her mother and asks how to get to Thread House. “Go straight down,” she is told by the men that appear around her. She does, and in Thread House she finds eleven women called by the names of the hanafuda, or Japanese flower game cards. Thus begins Thread Hell.
The Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawai‘i pioneered the creation and production of traditional Kabuki and Noh theatre in English for Western audiences (shout out to the late Professor Earle Ernst and Emeritus Professor James Brandon). We in Hawai‘i are lucky for this heritage, and now the department is stepping up its game. Thread Hell, written by award-winning playwright Kishida Rio and newly translated by Tsuneda Keiko and Colleen Lanki, the latter of whom also directs, is a treat for the mind from the more contemporary Japanese angura (underground/avant-garde) theatre movement. We are lucky once again that Lanki is a University of Hawai‘i Theatre and Dance Department alum and that she has decided to bring the premiere of the English language translation of Thread Hell to Kennedy Theatre.
Early 20th century Japanese theatre artists became interested in the classical Western repertoire, translating and performing Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and so on. Their own works adopted the West’s narrative style, concern with realism, focus on interpersonal human affairs, and interest in large, staged production values to produce what became known as the shingeki drama tradition. The angura movement began in the 1960s in reaction to the dominant shingeki style. Angura was less realistic, unconstrained by narrative convention, less concerned with solely humanistic issues and more interested in transcendental matters, disdainful of traditional theatre settings, inclusive of older theatre forms such as puppetry and mask, decidedly avant-garde and surrealist, and concerned with expression of transformational experiences. It is important to have this in mind while watching Thread Hell.
Set in a 1939 Tokyo textile mill, which also fronts as a brothel, Thread Hell explores identity, connection, freedom, and gender relations in a surreal ensemble piece that surrounds a mother-daughter narrative. Cocoon is in search of her mother. “Are you my mother?” she asks a series of women in Thread House. “No, I’m not your mother,” one woman after another responds, but they don’t really remember their stories either. At least, not right away.
Thread is a metaphor in this play for the connections between us, bound together as we are by the fabric of society and the interplay of our personal stories. When one of us moves, so does everyone else. For a while, the men in Thread Hell have control. They pull the strings and are accustomed to it being like that. But soon enough there are knots discovered in the fabric and some picking and pulling results in an unraveling. Recently arrived Thread Woman Cherry (Serina Dunham) does know her story and helps to set in motion something new within Thread House. Seasonal winds blow and stir memories in all of the women. “We used to be mothers. When winter wind blows, we remember,” they explain. New stories spill out – stories that the men didn’t tell them, stories that the men have never heard before, even stories involving murder.
Cocoon finds the mother who abandoned her and rejoins her story, if only briefly. It is a story about the eternal thread that is spun between mothers and daughters and how a mother tried to cut it. It is a story about how men are incidental in this connection that goes back to the beginning of time. But it is also a story from which Cocoon needs to free herself. Cutting threads.
Spinning, a creative act, and cutting, a destructive act, work together to create the matrix of this play. When we first encounter the Thread House, we learn that “A house is where everybody puts on a smiley face. A whorehouse is where everybody lies.” When the unraveling begins, one woman discovers that “My voice was sewn to the back of my throat.” When the strings are cut, are the women “like stray kites,” which is what the men think, or do they discover the truth about themselves?
“Why did you come here?” Cocoon is asked. “I didn’t come here,” she replies, “I just found myself being here.”
“This girl is like a bag full of holes and the words keep dropping out,” the men say about Cocoon, “Thunk, thunk thunk.”
Although there is a narrative here, the message of this play unfolds through a surreal enactment of themes, spoken in verse and story and enacted in motion and symbol. As much as I would like to single out certain actors, in many ways there are no individuals in this play. The eleven women of the Thread House (Denise Aiko Chinen, Nora Eschenheimer, Xia Gu, Jennifer Killinger, Karissa J. Murrell Myers, Kara Nabarrete, Adrienne Ramos, Melissa Schmitz, Kyle Scholl, Amanda Stone, and Qiaoer Zheng) work together beautifully, often moving as a group, telling their stories together, and even completing each other’s sentences at times. They are beautifully clothed by a large team of costumers and assisted by four dressers. The men (Shaun Dikilato, Tristan Holmes, Nicholas Murray Husted, Isaac Ligsay, and Ben Saunders), defined entirely by their roles in society or their functions vis-à-vis the women, appear as caricatures or, in one case, faceless players. The actions of these two groups weave in and out as they push and pull the strings that connect them. The actors must always be aware of each other and they successfully provide a sense of nonstop interplay. Some astonishing, gigantic puppets constructed by Meg Hanna also make an appearance, and even they are interconnected, echoing each other’s lines. This is an ensemble piece that needs to be tight, and it is. Simply put, everyone is outstanding. Any poor performance and the play would unravel from the weak point. It holds together beautifully and successfully.
The late Kishida Rio is recognized not only as a great angura playwright, but also as the first woman to take up the genre. As such she was interested in women’s experience, women’s perspectives, women’s roles in society, and the relationships between mothers and daughters, all of which are central themes of this play. There is a dark view of gender relations in Thread Hell, set as it is in a period in Japan that featured both increasing labor unrest, especially by female factory workers, and a march to war orchestrated primarily by men. If you were asked to group the character names (Cocoon, Pine, Plum, Cherry, Wisteria, Iris, Peony, Clover, Moon, Chrysanthemum, Maple, Rain, Mist, Master, Straw, Fishing Gut, Cord, and Paper/String) into two categories, the beautiful and natural ones would be the women and the ugly and utilitarian ones would be the men. The women and men are set in opposition in all situations depicted and described. The women of Thread House are absent from the official register of households, which is a record of patriarchal lineage, entitlement and ownership. But this absence is what allows them to realize/remember that they, and all women, exist in an alternative, transcendent network that connects mothers and daughters through time. Once they remember, we see that they are actors in an alternative matriarchal universe which connects to a faceless male reality through a combination of constructive acts that are essentially utilitarian in creating ties, like marriage and sex, and destructive acts that are crude but effective in cutting ties, like murder and suicide.
For Thread Hell, Kishida Rio was awarded the Kishida Kunio Drama Prize, Japan’s top honor for contemporary playwriting. When Rio passed away in 2003, Colleen Lanki received some of her unpublished scripts and a blue-green ceramic cat from her desk. She took it as a sign that she should produce Rio’s work. Luckily, she brought Thread Hell here, and now you have an opportunity to treat yourself to a mind-bending evening of surreal theatre expertly interpreted and performed by the cast and crew of this production. Let’s hope that UH continues to explore the outskirts of the contemporary Japanese theatrical repertoire.
University of Hawaii’s production of Thread Hell by Kishida Rio is playing on the mainstage at Kennedy Theatre on April 18, 19, and 20 at 8pm and April 21 at 2pm. A pre-show chat will be held in the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre on April 20 at 7pm.