OCTOBER 2023 | Volume 232
Tetsuro Shigematsu’s beautifully intimate autobiographical solo show kicks off Pacific Theatre’s 40th anniversary season. Since having premiered at The Cultch in 2015, a phenomenon at the time, selling out its entire run before it even opened, Empire of the Son has played across North America to the same kind of acclaim it received here, and for good reasons.
In telling the story about his relationship with his late father, to whom he was never able to say “I love you,” or to cry at his death, Shigematsu conjures a rich familial portrait, lays out some hard truths about masculinity and culture, evokes a historical sweep from the horrors of Hiroshima to the bucolic backyards of contemporary Vancouver, and posits some cosmic notions about life and death, all through aself-deprecating conversational performance seeded with humour and deep critical intelligence.
The original production, directed by Richard Wolfe, had as a bonus impressive production values in its set, lighting, sound and especially in Shigematsu’s manipulations of miniatures and a video camera, à la Robert Lepage, so that we saw him filming his own fingers alongside tiny toys to create a projected image resembling man pulling a mail cart, as his father did during his last years working at CBC; or filming a small tub of water which somehow turned into the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, a powerful memory of his father’s. These elements are essentially gone in Kaitlin Williams’ Pacific Theatre production.
The tiny stage is bare except for a screen on one walland some origami birds hanging from the ceiling, evoking his Japanese heritage. Tetsuro speaks in his own voice and his father’s, marveling at how they both ended up working at the CBC. We also hear recorded voices of his father and mother, his sisters and his own kids, and see photos and videos projected onto the screen: idyllic family portraits in London and in a bathtub together, his kids questioning why he can’t cry, his three beautiful adult sisters climbing onto his dying father’s bed.
Turns out Tetsuro is his father’s son in ways both good and not so good. He pays wonderful homage to the emotional wisdom and generosity of the women in his family, and to his adorable, insightful kids. And the ending, a series of revelations about “the terrible beauty of life” and its endurance in nature, still seems profound to me, though it didn’t have quite the impact it had the first time I saw the show.
Re-visiting a play you loved so much the first time around is bound to bring some disappointments. I felt the absence of those terrific visual effects from the original, and of fuller production values generally. The current show relies more heavily on the immediacy of Shigematsu’s relationship to the audience in this small theatre.Though his performance remains charming, it feels a little more measured than I remembered, a little more rehearsed—probably inevitable, since he has performed it hundreds of times over the past half-dozen years. The alley configuration of the Pacific Theatre stage also means that we don’t always see his face as he addresses both sides of the audience. We lose some of the actor’sdirect intimate eye contact with us as he tells his story.I don’t mean to be overly critical of this production. Empire of the Son remains one of the best plays to come out of Vancouver in the last decade, and Tetsuro Shigematsu is a storyteller of the highest caliber. If you’ve never seen this show, don’t miss it.
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