Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ludic Proxy: Unseen Scars of Disaster

Photo by Carol Rosegg

As the room shakes and the light fixture swings like a pendulum, experiencing an earthquake in Fukushima makes the anxiety of living in the nuclear age quite acute.  Aya Ogawa's play Ludic Proxy takes place in the past, present, and future in Pripyat, Fukushima, and New York.  The production is  suffuse with fantasy, artificiality, gaming, virtual reality, but set against a very human reality--the impact and damage of nuclear disasters. It is a thoughtful package but not an emotional one.

In Act I (The Past), we meet Nina (Jackie Katzman) who reminisces about her life as a child (Megan Stern) in Pripyat when she was looking forward to reciting her part in the school play  Her older sister Masha (Ayesha Jordan) was making out with her boyfriend Seymon (Chris Henry) in her bedroom. But the meltdown at Chernobyl changes her family's life forever.  They are evacuated from their home and eventually her sister Masha moves to America.  Masha chooses to forget everything that has happened.  But when Nina finally joins Masha many years later Nina is an adult lost in the past and in those memories. In Act II (The Present), Maki (Yuki Kawahisa) and Maho (Saori Tsukada) are sisters who grew up near Fukushima. Maho lives in Tokyo and frets about radiation the entire time she is home visiting her invalid father and Maki. The two sisters look at the world differently.  Maho begs her sister to come with her to Tokyo when suddenly another earthquake hits.  In Act III (The Future), a nuclear event has caused everyone to live underground and Trepple (Ayesha Jordan) and her friend Astro (Chris Henry) dream of exploring the surface and finding out if life still exists there.

There are repeating themes in each act--trust or distrust in the government, divided families (sisters in particular) confronting a world that is filled with unseen harm, and survival in the face of all odds.  Life before a nuclear incident and life after are distorted echoes of each other (A "ludic proxy" is a gaming-induced deja vu and thus these echoes may be the hazy confusion between memory, hopes, dreams, and reality).  Radiation changes people and not just on the cellular level--the fear, confusion, commitment to a world and a life that once was and those who run away.  The scars end up visible and invisible.  Even after tragedy has struck the survivors press on. And this seems to be Ogawa's central point. No matter the time or the place, life in all forms is tenacious and people will adapt. 

Ogawa directs the play as well. She uses inventive sound design (Michael Kiley), projections (Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew), and lighting (Oi-Suk Yew) to create this time-bending world of the past, present, and future.  It was a blend of hi-tech and lo-tech design (set design by Jian Jung) to accomplish the situational storytelling.  In Act I Adult Nina watches her nephew play a video game set in the post-disaster Chernobyl and Ogawa and company smartly recreates the video game in projection by moving cameras through a miniature set.  It was a creative way to explore the video game perspective which mimics the vantage point of a child (which is nicely played off of Adult Nina's memories of her childhood).

 When we move into "The Future" Ogawa uses the least amount of apparent technology. Rather with explanations and gestures, we are to imagine this futuristic world full of robots and humans with digital replacement parts.  For all the other sequences we got windows into the minds of the characters through design or projections.  But in The Future it is up to us to picture it.

The audience is called upon a lot in this play to help execute the vision.  In Act II, the play adopts a choose-your-own-adventure structure.  The audience, using numbered signs makes choices for the character Maho.  Some are simple action prompts which allow us to see more about the characters or the world around them ("Peek Into Maki's Planner" vs. "Open Fridge").  Others become critical choices for the character dynamics ("Question Her Outlook" vs "Listen Without Commentary").  Maho is meant to be an avatar for our experience which we are controlling to a degree (though in the staging it didn't feel sharply drawn).  She looks to the audience for her choice and a woman in a hazmat suit shouts out the decision based on the majority vote. 

Certain choices had an overwhelming majority vote but others were more mixed.  There was some tension between the characters and our choices.  Maki's desire to stay in her community despite the radiation risks spoke to her concern about the community and the community's perception of her were she to leave. As we aggressively voted to encourage Maki to leave with Maho I wondered what the gentler path might look like and was our self-interest skewing the story.  Obviously it is written to provide both options and I expect this is the kind of post-hoc thinking we should be doing.

But even though we were driving the narrative in this way I did not feel as integrally linked to the choices like I did in other shows where group votes said more about the audience than the storytelling  (Gym Party by Made in China, Purge by Brian Lobel).  It felt like a simulacrum.  Only the very last choice we make for Maho felt like it had serious consequences. We knew so little of the characters when the Act started and even as we voted I never quite felt I knew what I was voting for or against.

For all these unusual and unexpected creative choices, which were fascinating to watch, I struggled with the play's distancing devices.  With audience participation and contemplation of our own decisions in these circumstances, I should have been more invested than I was.  Though the earthquake was incredibly well-rendered through sound and motion, it kept feeling like we were experiencing the idea of fear rather than feeling actual fear.  I kept waiting to be drawn in emotionally and it did not happen despite what should have been a gripping premise that asks you what kind of survivor you would be.

I received a complimentary ticket.

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