Thursday, October 5, 2017

1 Hour Photo at The Cultch

Tetsuro Shigematsu's 1 Hour Photo, which opened last night at The Cultch's Historic Theatre, is his follow-up to the wildly successful Empire of the Son. Like Empire, 1 Hour Photo is once again being produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT), and Richard Wolfe returns as director. The two shows also follow a similar format, with Shigematsu, as writer-performer, recounting his story directly to the audience and using miniature digital cameras and live video feeds to animate various on-stage objects to startling effect, including in this newest work a miniature dioramic model of the North Vancouver house where Shigematsu lives with his family.

The replica house is a significant symbol, and in many ways represents the bridge between these two works. Thus, near the top of 1 Hour Photo, we learn that Shigematsu moved into it with his wife, children and parents at the insistence of its owner, VACT's Artistic Producer, Donna Yamamoto. It was here that Shigematsu cared for his dying father (who was the subject of Empire), and also where he discovered, in the form of an old Japan Camera coffee mug, the first clue to the life story of Yamamoto's father, who is the focus of this piece.

Mas Yamamoto, 91 years old and still going strong, owned a string of Japan Camera outlets, which were among the first photo development franchises that began offering one-hour return service in the early 1980s--hence the title of the show. But before he became a successful businessman, Mas lived several other lives, which coincided with some of the signal events in twentieth-century British Columbian and Canadian history. Distilling 36 hours of interviews with Mas into an 18-minute first-person narrative that he then pressed into a vinyl recording, Shigematsu, aided by composer and onstage musical sidekick, Steve Charles, proceeds to spin his tale, giving us an excerpt of Mas's voice, and then elaborating on the larger social and political context. We learn, for example, that Mas was interned with his family during World War II at Lemon Creek, and that it was there that he met his first love, Midge. With only a Grade 9 education at the end of the war, Mas went to work to support his family, losing touch with Midge, and eventually working on the Distant Early Warning Line in the Canadian Arctic during the height of the Cold War. It was during this period that he met Joan, whom he would marry. Their growing family, and the need to supplement his meagre blue collar wages, prompted Mas to return to school, completing his high school equivalency, and a BSc, MSc and PhD in Pharmacology at UBC in less than a decade. And then, chucking his comfortable job as a government scientist, at the age of 50 Mas decided to become a photo shop entrepreneur. The story comes full circle when, later in life, Mas reencounters Midge, who will join Mas and his family in the gallery at the BC Legislature to witness Mas's daughter and Liberal Minister of Advanced Education, Naomi Yamomoto, deliver a speech endorsing a motion of apology to Japanese Canadians on the 70th anniversary of their interment.

All of this is supplemented by amazing archival photographs and film footage (the video design is by Jamie Nesbitt), and Shigematsu creates some wonderful effects with his live camera feed, as when a single miniature bunkbed placed within a mirrored box becomes multiplied into row upon row when projected on the backstage screen. Paradoxically, however, the visual design of the show points to the underdevelopment of the photographic metaphor in Shigematsu's script. Apart from one arresting description of multiple exposure as a way to think of the collapsing of time into a single stilled moment, I was struck by how Shigematsu's narrative portrait mostly eschewed such analogies. Indeed, it is the recording of Mas's voice that instead tends to dominate, and that via the repeated ritual of Shigematsu or Charles dropping the turntable needle into a given groove on the spinning record accords that voice a necessarily auratic quality (Shigematsu's likening of this audio document to the recordings that were sent into space on the Voyager satellites only deepens this feeling). As a result, Shigematsu's own voice at times registered to me as more adjunct than central to the story, mostly serving to amplify or illustrate the gist of what Mas had to say. Most telling, in this regard, is that the references to Shigematsu's own father felt extraneous to this piece, almost as if they had been imported to tie Empire of the Son and I Hour Photo more tightly together.

I don't think such dramaturgical stitching is needed. The two works already complement each other in myriad other ways.


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