When Scarlett Johansson hooked up with Bill Murray in Tokyo, she was well and truly “lost in translation”. The same could be said of the Bush reaching out towards a 1993 Japanese hit comedy by Shoji Kokami that titillates for a short while but fails to find any real point of contact.
If anything, Trance’s slight story of three old school friends meeting up by chance and proceeding to search for “the true meaning of existence in the modern world” has echoes of certain surrealist European plays; you never feel, while watching Kokami’s own antiseptic production, that you are learning anything at all about life in contemporary Japan.
The madhouse mood is set by Bob Bailey’s all-white design of mobile screens and four large cubes. Reiko (Meredith MacNeill) is a psychiatrist who is trapped in a relationship with a married man. Masa (Stephen Darcy) is a severely delusional freelance writer torn with guilt about promoting himself and lurching into the persona of the emperor of Japan. Sanzo (Rhashan Stone) is a drag artist in a turquoise bandanna.
While the other two performances are fine, Darcy makes the mistake of playing his psychosis as a one-note drone with disastrous consequences on our attentiveness. By the end of the two-hour evening, despite Stone’s best efforts to jolly everyone along, all three characters are wearing white coats and gloomily doubling up functions as doctors and patients.
With talk of the “serious journalists” of Hello! magazine waiting for a story, the news of Reiko’s pregnancy and the surprise castration of Sanzo, now a subservient eunuch at the court of the emperor, the piece lurches into a role-playing charade without the bite or the sexiness of Jean Genet. In transpires that both Reiko and Sanzo are in love with their emperor, though it’s hard to see how these affections are based in any convincing carnal or spiritual inclinations.
Amy Kassai’s translation must have ironed out any specific references in the original play, for there’s no local flavour to it whatsoever. Indeed, with Darcy’s Irish accent and the American-leaning lilt of both MacNeill and Stone, you wonder why the Bush has gone to the trouble at all of introducing us to a writer regarded as one of Japan’s hot properties.
MacNeill plays with a wide-eyed, fraught intensity that keeps us interested in her performance, if not in her character, while Stone’s “turn” as the drag queen is both a delightful surprise coming from him – he plays with a wonderfully fluent physical line and a sharp, snappy delivery - and a calling card for any future casting directors on plays by Tennessee Williams or Terrence McNally. Stone can sing, too, as we know from his appearances in Sweeney Todd at the National and Five Guys Named Moe. Can his Gloria Swanson in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard be all that far behind?
- Michael Coveney