Suicide is sadly in the air lately. The epidemic of suicides amongst our returning servicemen and New York City policemen plus the simultaneous appearance of two plays on the subject—Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide at the Atlantic Theatre Company and The Bushwick Starr production of Haruna Lee’s Suicide Forest presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company—make for a pervading dark mood although the latter takes a cartoony look at the subject.
Suicide Forest is divided into two chapters, the first of which is a take on contemporary society in 1990 Japan with its unceasing pressures to fit in and the second, a fantastical vision of a land full of mythical creatures, the Suicide Forest.
Suicide Forest follows the besieged Salaryman (Eddy Toru Ohno, in a richly detailed display of a man falling apart due to social pressure). He pals around with his Friend (Keizo Kaji, boisterous) who leads the two of them into sexually charged situations with the Salaryman’s sadomasochistic secretary the Office Lady (Yuki Kawahisa, energetic) and his two daughters, Miho and Chiho, played by Ako and Dawn Akemi Saito as raunchy, foul-mouthed nymphettes. They upset their father with their bawdy behavior attired in doll-like pink layered dresses (imaginative and colorful costumes by Alice Tavener) which contrast humorously with their brazen vulgarity.
Salaryman, continuing his sexual misadventures, gets explicitly involved with the mannequin-like Azusa played with frightening calmness by the playwright. At one point he offers her a Gucci bag, symbol of Western decadence.
All this takes place in Jian Jung’s colorfully childlike pink room furnished with white chairs, a loveseat, a table and a screen. This flexible space becomes an office and a social drinking establishment among other places to tell Lee’s ditzy, but deep story. It even turns into a TV studio while an insipid game show proceeds to attack the Salaryman.
In this first part Lee appears to be revealing the dark underside of the supposedly civilized Japanese society, just what is going on in this sexist and ageist country.
Part Two transports the audience to a fantasy land populated by spirits and a bunch of goats (wearing Tavener’s delightfully fuzzy costumes) led by Guriko (Yuki Kawahisa), Kamiya-San (Ako) and Go (Dawn Akemi Saito who also artfully played the Salaryman’s boss, Ken). They wander about kvetching about their existence. Moving amongst many long cloth bags hanging from the ceiling, filled with a grain-like substance, the goats natter and argue about mundane matters.
Holding the play together is the ghostly figure of Mad Mad played by the playwright’s mother Aoi Lee dressed in a red robe carrying a loose cloth sack full of some unknown, but heavy material. She appears to be constantly setting spells on the others until the playwright, herself, interrupts the play at the end to begin a revealing and touching colloquy between them playing their real-life selves.
This illustrates the biggest problem with Suicide Forest: it takes on too many issues, jumping from social to sexual to mythological to intimate family subjects. Making the play even more difficult to understand is that it is performed in both Japanese and English. In addition there is some confusing cross-dressing.
Suicide Forest is alternately funny, disgusting and moving, making it too often a tiring show to sit through despite its wealth of social commentary. The director Aya Ogawa kept the show rolling along but couldn’t make all the parts gel.
Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew provided vivid, if obvious, lighting emphasizing rapid changes of color over storytelling. The mood music is by Fan Zhang with songs by Jen Goma.
As an oddity, Suicide Forest stands out as a study of a society different from ours, but its shaky, changing structure lessens its effect.
Suicide Forest (extended through March 12, 2020)
Ma-Yi Theater Company and The Bushwick Starr
A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre, 502 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.Ma-YiTheatre.org
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission