Sunday, January 29, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #8: Hot Pepper... at SFU Woodward's

Three years ago, at the 2009 PuSh Festival, Richard and I sat in Performance Works (next to soon-to-be Associate Curator Dani Fecko, in fact) and watched a group of young Japanese actors interact in a succession of oblique scenes in front of a white backdrop. The surtitles projected onto that backdrop suggested that most of the exchanges concerned whether or not these curiously affectless characters should leave off talking about the mostly banal goings on in their lives and join a protest wending its way through the streets of Tokyo, and gradually it became apparent that the historical backdrop to the piece was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mostly, however, I paid scant attention to the surtitles, so mesmerized was I by the curious gestural patterns and bouncy-jerky movements repeated by the actors as they spoke their dialogue.

Five Days in March was my first introduction to the work of Tokyo's chelfitsch Theatre Company and its quirky artistic director, Toshiki Okada. So taken was I with his unique juxtaposition of speech and movement that when I learned the company was coming back to this year's Festival with a new work, I immediately put it on my list of must-see shows. Last night I caught the final performance of Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech at SFU Woodward's Studio T, and it did not disappoint.

As per its title, the piece is divided into three related vignettes, all set within an unnamed office in Tokyo. In the first, three temporary workers discuss the farewell party they have been charged with organizing for Erika, a fellow part-time employee who is being let go. Their worries about where to hold the party, and what sort of cuisine Erika might like, gradually give way to speculation on which of them might be next to be axed, and what they'd like to eat at their own farewell dinner. Next up, two permanent workers--one male, one female--have a bizarrely circuitous and increasingly aggressive conversation about the temperature in the office. Finally, Erika herself is given the floor, her brief farewell remarks eventually turning into an epic story about how the shoes she has worn nearly every day to work for almost two years remind her of mating penguins, and the cicada she stepped on with them outside her apartment that morning.

All of this is told against a similarly stark white backdrop, onto which surtitles are again projected. But so, at various points, are kaleidoscopic washes of colour that, together with a soundtrack of cool jazz and pulsating electronica, enhance the surreal quality of the piece. However, nothing contributes more to that overall effect than the trademark movement patterns of the chelfitsch actors as they speak their lines. Waving fans, walking on their heels, rubbing arms and legs obsessively, and generally contorting their limbs and bodies into all sorts of strange positions, the staccato choreography suggests a generation of young people chafing not just against the facade of office decorum, but against their diminished expectations more generally.

Social realism is definitely not chelfitsch's aesthetic stock in trade; but compelling social commentary is nevertheless the result.


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