Arts & Culture

Teasing out the hidden

By Lorraine Graves

Published 2:44 PST, Fri November 8, 2019

Last Updated: 12:09 PST, Wed November 20, 2019

If you have ever been a video gamer or a parent. If you have ever been profoundly lonely or wanted to just hide in your room forever. If you have ever loved a child deeply, powerfully. This play is for you. 

Kuroko, on at the Cultch shows the intergenerational cultural divide that many of Richmond’s residents of Japanese ancestry lived with throughout most of the past century. At the same time, Kuroko speaks to the hearts of everyone, regardless of culture. 

Tetsuro Shigematsu’s writing is eloquent. As one actor said after the performance, you can have the best stagecraft and the best actors but without the words, it all falls flat. This play is well-rounded with each of the main characters multi-dimensional with depth and subtlety. 

Kuroko brings to the fore two phenomenon that have started in Japan but may seep over into our part of the world. One is the renting of actors to play family members. More than just a date for a family wedding, these are rental families who will regularly come to your home to cook a meal, chat over dinner, go for picnics or any other socialization a lonely person could crave. 

The second phenomenon is the long word hikikomori best described by playwright, Shigematsu, “They are the young people who, on their road to maturation, experience some sort of set-back and this is often in the form of bullying in high school, or it could be failing at their all important entrance exams.” 

As a consequence, Shigematsu says they react by retreating to their bedrooms and deciding to never leave.

The reclusive daughter’s coping mechanism is the world of online video games. Much of the play’s humour comes from the two young adults’ avatars interacting within the games they play. For example, the attempts of a new player to jump onto a wall but keeps falling short, elicited much laughter from the audience. 

At this point, it is worth including the words of my much-younger companion for the evening, though some of the words are not in my vocabulary:

“It's the attention to details that really brings out the charm and makes the piece come alive. From the train stations to the instant virtual graffiti and the bobbling avatars in the virtual space, it becomes very easy to relate to as person who’s experienced all of these situations first hand.”

He also praised Sophie Tang’s set design: “It's very masterfully put together with such a small cast doing all the prop maneuvering as it transitioned smoothly from one scene to the next.” 

He found the virtual reality relatable saying, “Although not entirely 100 per cent like a video game, it carries over the clichés of actual gaming and uses more of an anime/(cartoon) adaptation to a mmorpg/role playing/first person shooter to blend in the story telling.” 

He also liked the many cultural references saying, “The acting carries influences from the Japanese soap operas I saw when I was younger.”

Kanon Hewitt as Maya the daughter who never leaves her room offers a nuanced performance. We see her change from the reclusive, unsure daughter to the assertive warrior, her avatar, inside a video game as she interacts with Kilroy37 played by Lou Ticzon with equal finesse. When no longer his avatar but convincingly an unsure young man named Kenzo, Ticzon shows his acting prowess. 

As the mother of the family, trying to hold it all together, Manami Hara shines, showing us the plethora of issues and tactics the mom of a family in crisis must juggle. 

In John Ng as the father trying to keep all the balls in the air while sliding into despair, and yet hoping for a better life for his wife and daughter, we see all sides of a man driven by love and social expectations. 

Donna Soares as the woman who runs the agency offering actors to fill in the missing gaps in families, is spot on. Soares also plays a host of different characters in Kuroko.

While called upon to play many roles, some just hoodied people on the periphery of the play, the cast never broke character. Each role had a different flavour that enriched the whole, like a well-spiced dish with unified complexity. 

There is lots of laughter in this play but there are such tender moments as well. Each member of the family is dealing with a hidden, soul-sucking loss, as the play opens. Each member of the family deals with it differently.

Father hides his loss of a job and impending financial doom. Mother hides her grief over a lost son and a daughter who will not come out of her room. And the daughter, Maya, hides from the world, grieving because she thinks her parents never wanted her, only her older, missing brother.  

What also shines through is the family’s desire to be a family. The parents work hard to find a way to coax their bedroom-bound, online-gaming daughter out of her room. Spoiler alert: love helps. 

Asked what a play about a Japanese phenomenon has to tell Canadian audiences, Shigematsu responds, “Who isn’t guilty of spending more and more time looking at these tiny screens? Most of our communication is now tech-mediated. I think that the more time we spend on them and the less time we spend with each other, that physical connection begins to atrophy.”

He calls the hikikomori the canary in the coal mine of modern culture. 

So, this play is also a cautionary tale that offers its own solution – making true connection with others.

The set was minimalist but highly functional. I found the constant moving of the foam cubes, too frequently reassembled to make a new situation, a bit much but, each time they were moved and built into a new configuration, they set the scene well. 

The sound was stellar, subtle when it needed to be, yet always clear and never too loud. 

The lighting and special effects worked without intruding. 

A couple of times the actors seemed to misspeak a line or miss a cue which is not unusual on an opening night. It didn’t mar the play or its impact. 

The first week of this world premier was sold out before it opened. The second week is selling fast.

This is that rarity, a perfect play for a family – parents with their teen or adult off-spring – to attend together. While I missed many of the video game references, my 30-year-old companion laughed out loud at each of them. It gave us something to talk about after on the ride home as he enthused about the entire play. He’s already texted his contemporaries to say they need to see Kuroko.

Shigematsu says, “This play is in best tradition of speculative fiction. Good speculative fiction is my mind, ostensibly set in future, is a commentary on the present.”

He says that while the play is set in Japan, “For me is about life here in Canada, especially as I watch my kids. They are a testament to my bad parenting.” Because, he says they begin to tweak when he takes away their electronic devices. 

The main message of Kuroko is love and its power to transform lives. Each of the main characters is transformed in a different way by love as they work to overcome alienation, loneliness, desperation and profound grief.

While there is a serious undertone, the knowing humour offers many comic turns throughout the play just as one would expect of a writer who honed his skills on such things as CBC’s 22 Minutes. 

Act, Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre Company, is known for premiering strong works with well-rounded characters and this play is no exception. As producing artistic director Donna Yamamoto says, “We are staging acts of cultural evolution and we are just getting started.”

Kuroko is a nuanced tale, well-told by a skilled story-teller, with fine acting and staging. Don’t miss it. 

This production runs through Nov. 17 at the Cultch, 1895 Venables St., Vancouver. (Take the Knight Street Bridge and continue on until you turn right at Venables.) Free street parking usually available.

There are still some tickets available for the second week of its run through the box office 604-251-1363 or online at thecultch.com/tickets/

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