Japan's Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech finds a wonked-out physical language for corporate malaise
A Chelfitsch Theater production. A PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presentation. At SFU Woodward's Studio T on Friday, January 27
Crazy as nine out of 10 Japanese game shows are, they’ve got nothing on what transpired at SFU Woodward’s Studio T on Friday. If you’d walked in cold after knocking back three or four Snow Whites at Guu, you would have been more than a bit freaked out by the sight of yammering Japanese office workers performing awkward chicken dances to the sounds of screeching jazz.
But allowed to build in context, the quirked-out Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech is a cleverly absurd capturing of the soul-sucking life of a temp in recession-era Japanese corporate culture. Think of it as a sort of avant-garde, Shinjuku-set The Office. This dryly comedic interdisciplinary piece is all about circling monologues, strangling politeness, and repetitive boredom. It can be unrelenting to watch, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
Hot Pepper is the latest weird little offering from Chelfitsch Theater Company, a Japanese troupe that’s enjoying indie-festival acclaim around the world. Writer-director Toshiki Okada’s three-part piece of dance-theatre consists of an opening scene of three young office workers in a bare little lunchroom, planning the farewell party for fellow temp Erika. But as they offer deadpan opinions on the plan (one endlessly weighs the merits of a motsu hotpot restaurant), they perform odd, highly stylized dances that create a complete sense of disconnect from what we’re hearing: one woman swings around a fan, donkey-kicks her legs, and lurches around knock-kneed.
The second vignette finds a woman trying to politely complain to a man about the air conditioning being too cold, but he’s not listening to her, and as he starts to shake his hips and fluff his hair, they devolve into a weird, barely masked sexual dance. And last, the temp who’s leaving, Erika, arrives to give her farewell speech, a full-on tangent about squishing a cicada on her way out the door that morning, this accompanied by a wonked-out dance to match.
The action is all easy to understand, thanks to the slang-filled translations projected in surtitles. They even include funny little Wikipedia definitions of terms in the work, from izakaya to Hot Pepper (the latter a kind of Time Out mag for Japan).
The circling, go-nowhere speaking can get exhausting after a while. But you don’t have to have worked in a Japanese office to get the existential joke here: anyone who’s ever set foot in a cubicle or experienced the lowest rung of temp work will find the sense of malaise and alienation all too familiar. In fact, it’s enough to send you back to Guu for more cocktails.