By Tetsuro Shigematsu. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production, presented by the Cultch. At the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, October 8. Continues until October 24
I’m telling all of the people I love most to see this show.
Tetsuro Shigematsu’s Empire of the Son is exquisite. It’s also painstakingly honest. In his script, which Shigematsu performs solo, he explores his relationship with his father, Akira. In a talkback after the performance I attended, Shigematsu summoned the idea that artists are caught in the tension between wanting to hide and wanting to communicate. That may be the same tension that makes so many stories about fathers and sons so moving.
The Japanese-Canadian household of the writer’s youth magnified the emotional restraint that many cultures put on males. Akira never stated his love for Tetsuro, but in unfolding the story of his father’s childhood and its wartime traumas, Shigematsu discovers the transformative power of compassion. And in the process of exploring his dad’s career humiliation—he went from being a broadcaster at the BBC and CBC to delivering mail in the CBC corridors—he redefines male success.
Shigematsu’s script includes a central conceit: he has never cried as an adult, but his dad died on September 18, and he wants to weep without self-consciousness at the funeral—so these performances are an opportunity to rehearse. Within that container, the storytelling is poetic, associative—and often funny. One charming anecdote involves the author’s young son, who is decidedly less self-conscious than his forebears: “Daddy, will you wipe my buttinsky?” When Shigematsu obliges, he observes his child: “For him, it’s like a day at the spa.” The associations can also be searing. Akira witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima; his granddaughter writes a story for elementary school in which she skates with her family on Grouse Mountain for one last time before the Earth is destroyed by a solar flare.
Physically, the show, which was directed by Richard Wolfe and produced by Donna Yamamoto, is stellar. Shigematsu often uses a camera turned on toys and other miniatures to tell his story. Those mini movies are projected live onto a screen behind him. In the Grouse Mountain sequence, his two fingers skate in the open space between mini snowdrifts.
With its vertical narrow strips of wood, Pam Johnson’s set conjures Japanese elegance, then explodes into a freeform arrangement of straight lines at the top. And Gerald King’s lighting is downright musical in its multiplicity of textures and its combination of subtlety and drama.
I can’t say enough good things about Empire of the Son. It’s bound to be one of the best shows of the year. You should see it.