Off-Off-Broadway Theater Reviews: KUTSUKAKE TOKIJIRO and SHE KILLS MONSTERS (The Flea)

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by Victoria Linchong on November 19, 2011

in Theater-New York

UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS AT THE FLEA

At the Flea Theater - Kutsukake Tokijiro and She Kills Monsters – Off Broadway Theater Reviews by Victoria LinchongThe Flea Theater is currently providing New York theater audiences an interesting illustration of the cultural gap between Asian-Americans and Asians from Asia. Not that I usually am so divisive — I generally feel that everyone has a lot more in common than they have differences — but this month, the Flea features two comic book-inspired productions that are like opposite sides of the moon. Downstairs, the production of Kutsukake Tokijiro is an earnest, straightforward performance of a 1928 gangster drama by Shin Hasegawa being presented by the Kurutama Kikaku, a new theater company of Japanese transplants. Upstairs, there is a rip-roaring satirical production of She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen of the self-described “geek” theater company Vampire Cowboys. Both feature lively fight choreography, costumed cartoon villains, an underdog hero, and an omniscient narrator, yet Kutsukake Tokijiro slashes around, mostly missing the mark, while She Kills Monsters positively slays the audience.

At the Flea Theater - Kutsukake Tokijiro and She Kills Monsters – Off Broadway Theater Reviews by Victoria Linchong

The difference is in the treatment of these two productions. Kutsukake Tokijiro is, for the most part, presented conventionally by director Jun Kim without a sense of absurdity or element of critique that would elevate the play above an imitation yakuza noir or manga anime. We’ve already seen countless permutations of the story: A hard-boiled gangster attempts to go straight for the love of some dame but is pulled back into his old life because it’s the only life he really knows. Such an old saw of a story needs a fresh angle to be seen anew. But the production seesaws between cartoon violence and sentimental passages that depict the yakuza code of honor without the slightest hint of irony or critical perspective. In 1928, when the play was written, a nationalistic spirit was being cultivated in Japan just before the country went to all-out war. Eighty years later, the spirit of self-sacrifice and the tragic choice between duty and love, giri and ninjo, really needs to be presented with a little more awareness and insight.

At the Flea Theater - Kutsukake Tokijiro and She Kills Monsters – Off Broadway Theater Reviews by Victoria Linchong

That said, the play isn’t completely lost in translation, though it was definitely more palatable when the actors spoke in Japanese rather than in English.  Kayoko Sakoh’s choreography provided a whiff of campy humor that the production sorely needed.  In the defining fight between the two men, an OK Corral-style stand-off becomes a sumo wrestling stance before it descends into a stylized brawl.  There was also a lovely folk dance, successful perhaps in being one of the few elements in this play that could be presented straight without an overarching consciousness.  The production also features inspired video design by Yoann Trellu that verged on poetic:  a simple calligraphic line succinctly indicates a long journey, a falling feather is amplified and becomes snow.  Stirring music by Ryo Yoshimata underscores most of the play, with Keiji Yoshino on guitar and Kae Reed on a variety of percussion instruments, including taiko, muyu and cajon.  On the whole, the ambitiousness of the production is to be commended; I just wish Kim was more culturally perceptive in his interpretation.

At the Flea Theater - Kutsukake Tokijiro and She Kills Monsters – Off Broadway Theater Reviews by Victoria Linchong

In contrast, She Kills Monsters is delightfully farcical, firmly placing its violence in the realm of fantasy. Director Robert Ross Parker sets the tone at the very top of Nguyen’s hilarious script with Nicky Schmidlein as the Narrator introducing the game of Dungeons and Dragons as “so advanced in its advanciness it would take a whole second edition to contain all its geeky geekery” as she (literally) glides around the room costumed as some sort of intergalactic Shakespearean Valkyrie.

At the Flea Theater - Kutsukake Tokijiro and She Kills Monsters – Off Broadway Theater Reviews by Victoria Linchong

The play is ultimately a madcap reconciliation between two sisters. Outsider teen Tilly (Allison Buck) suddenly dies in a car crash, leaving her older sister Agnes (Satomi Blair) with a module for a Dungeons and Dragons adventure.  Skeptical about the game, but wishing to find a connection with her dead sister, Agnes enlists the help of her sister’s friend Chuck (Jack Corcoran) and embarks on a rollicking quest to recover the Lost Soul of Athens. Ohio, that is.

At the Flea Theater - Kutsukake Tokijiro and She Kills Monsters – Off Broadway Theater Reviews by Victoria Linchong

The all-around excellent cast seems to have as much fun as the audience, with stand-outs being Edgar Eguia as the bumbling hero Steve, the Great Mage who manages to die in a number of creative ways, and Schmidlein in her myriad roles as the imposing Narrator, a gleefully sinister cheerleader Succubus, and a diminutive badass fairy.  Perhaps the only trick the production doesn’t quite turn is in the depth of Agnes’ loss — the tragedy never quite feels real, especially since Tilly is ever-present, exasperated by her sister’s skepticism, dressed like a peasant warrior, and hacking away at the amazingly wacky monsters. But this is a minor quibble with all the miracles that this production does deliver upon, including a spectacular denouement — a duel with a five-headed dragon created by David Valentine that caused the audience to gasp and spontaneously burst into applause. It truly must be seen to be believed.

At the Flea Theater - Kutsukake Tokijiro and She Kills Monsters – Off Broadway Theater Reviews by Victoria LinchongTokijiro photos by Kenji More
Monsters photos by Joan Marcus

Kutsukake Tokijiro
Downstairs at The Flea Theater
41 White Street between Church and Broadway
ends on November 27, 2011
for tickets, call 212.226.2407 or visit The Flea

She Kills Monsters
upstairs at The Flea Theater
41 White Street between Church and Broadway
ends on December 23, 2011
for tickets, call 212.226.2407 or visit The Flea

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