november 2016 | Volume 149
Empire of the Son is a phenomenon – written and performed by a first-time playwright and self-described untrained actor, sold out in advance for two runs at the Cultch (including this one), booked for a tour to major theatres in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. Some of its success has to do with demographics, some with reputation, but much of it with the fact that this is a phenomenal show.
Tetsuro Shigematsu tells a story about his father’s life and death, his own inability to say “I love you” and to cry. The script is smart, funny and imaginatively constructed, beautifully written in places and powerfully moving. Brought to life with Tetsuro’s unique performance style, Richard Wolfe’s brilliant direction and a wonderful set of design elements, the result is a rich and joyous theatrical experience.
Tetsuro alternately narrates and enacts scenes from his father’s life, sometimes using a mic, sometimes not. In the process he locates himself in relation to his father, with whom he had a typically strained relationship, to his father’s father and to his own son. He also reveals a good deal about the women in his life, and through them about himself: his grieving mother and his wife, who invites his mother to live with them; his daughter, whose imaginative, apocalyptic story about the moon echoes Tetsuro’s father’s real stories about Hiroshima and the firebombing of his Japanese hometown; and his three dynamic sisters, whose visit to the father’s hospital room is an especially stirring highlight of a show filled with them. All these family members appear in projected photographs, home movies and vocal recordings as well as through Tetsuro’s narrative. And the more we learn, the more we admire.
Untrained or not, Tetsuro has a fascinating performance style. Vocally, it’s somewhat flat and uninflected, more like a film actor than someone trained for the stage. He also speaks with a slight lisp and curious rhythms. Together with his unusual appearance—he’s tall, handsome and fit with Japanese facial features and a long dark pony tail, but his most evident attribute is an old-fashioned curlicue moustache—the effect is almost magnetic.
There’s a beautiful, poignant simplicity to the way he tells his story, aided immensely by Wolfe’s directorial choreography of the variations in its modes of delivery, Pam Johnson’s simple, evocative set, and dramatic lighting from Gerald King and sound by Steve Charles. It all comes together exquisitely in key moments; Tetsuro’s memory of traveling on a Tokyo commuter train is one. Also outstanding are Tetsuro’s manipulations of miniatures and a video camera, à la Robert Lepage, so that we see him filming his own fingers alongside tiny toys and at the same time we see the projected image resembling a kid skateboarding or a man pulling a mail cart; he films a small tub of water and we see the Hiroshima mushroom cloud.
The show ends with a lovely and profound meditation on mortality, a fitting conclusion to a marvelous play about lives and death.
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