Chelfitsch “Current Location” – A Mirror To Reality (part 2)

Given the predilection of Chelfitsch for taking on the most actual and most relevant issues of the present, it was only natural that their newest work would mirror the state of the Japanese society after the disaster triggered by the earthquake on March 11th 2011.

From an article entitled “Menacing reality through fiction” (Theater der Zeit, 10/2011) we already got a glimpse of the direction which Okada Toshiki’s work would take after the events that marked last year. He was acknowledging theatre as fiction and raising the question about what can fiction do in order to give a stimulus of some kind to reality. The disaster which afflicted Japan last year had been a turning point for him as a playwright, such as it had been for the Japanese society as a whole.

Genzaichi (“Current Location”) was performed from April 20th through April 30th at Kanagawa Arts Theater (KAAT). Okada Toshiki insists that the work should be seen as fiction, and goes as far as pointing out the science fiction elements of the play, in an attempt to detach the story from the events last year.

The characters of “Current Location” are tormented by the rumors that a disaster is set to happen to their village. While some believe the rumors and want to leave at once, others don’t see any reason to take action, though they are also obviously disturbed by the rumors. While the seemingly unconcerned ones attempt to live their lives like they used to, one of the characters is murdered. No one knows her whereabouts until the lake near the village dries and reveals the body. On the same occasion, the villagers dig up a ship found at the bottom of the lake, which they see as a means to leave the crumbling village forever. Some of them do leave – thinking with regret that the world they left behind would have already disappeared. But some of them remain, only to witness a long-lasting rain that menaced to flood everything. It turns out that the rain fills the lake back, and the village flourishes once again.

The option for an all female cast seems to have been motivated by the need to express the anxiety before change and the weight given to rumors that could never be certified. While each of the characters has her own way of dealing with the critical situation, the overall view is of an ambiguous state of affairs, impossible to grasp in its entirety. There is no final, clear-cut answer, in spite of the urgency to find one. In order to suggest the viewers that the story unfolding on the stage concerns them directly, the characters even stage a play within the play. In this way, some of them become spectators themselves, breaking that imaginary division between stage and audience known as the fourth wall, and letting the viewers realize that they are involved in this story.

Nevertheless, the most disturbing thing about “Current Location” is that the choreography which was the trademark of Chelfitsch has been left off. With the “noisy” physical movement being replaced by restrained gestures, the result must be a shocking sight for the viewers accustomed to their performances, as the silence of the gestures proves to be far more unsettling than the silence of words. More than anything else, this almost unnatural absence of movement is the mark of a dramatic change undergone by Chelfitsch in light of recent events.

This may be redundant, but I must confess that my own impression of the performance was marked by the earthquake that occurred right in the middle of it. Is this part of the script? I wondered half in disbelief. But for two long minutes, the boundary between fiction and reality was unexpectedly abolished, with the actors on the stage and the people in the audience sharing a feeling of dread. (I doubt I could ever fully describe how an earthquake feels when you find yourself in a row near the stage – hearing the lighting instruments swaying above your head, but being unable to see them in the dark; and thanking God that the rest of the viewers are Japanese, which means that they won’t be rushing unreasonably for the exit, in a chaos more dangerous than the earthquake itself). It was as if the bodies of all present were about to dissolve in fear, while the tension of the moment felt more material than the people and the objects around.

Long after the performance, there was a phrase that still followed me: “Those who keep their eyes closed, end up dead”. This is probably the one and only direct statement in the whole script and it is the only point where the author leaves his unintrusive stance aside. For a single moment, the image in the mirror becomes menacing and appeals to the consciousness of the audience directly.

The plot of “Current Location” and its resemblance to the current state of affairs may be overwhelming to anyone living in Japan at the moment, but Okada insists that his intention was to conceive a fictional work, powerful enough as to shake reality. After all, the act of checking our current location is in itself a sign that we are on our way toward a new horizon, and hope is not lost as long as we keep going forward.

I have no doubt that audiences from any time and any place in the world will be able to link this strangely painful story to their own anxieties and to see their own image reflected in the mirror, urging them to take a step toward the self they desire to be.


Chelfitsch “Current Location” – A Mirror To Reality (part 1)

One of the first performances I saw in Japan was Genzaichi ”Current Location”, written and directed by Okada Toshiki, founder of the theatrical unit Chelfitsch.

Chelfitsch has been active since 1997 and is known for its original performance style, which makes use of colloquial language and “noisy” physical movement. Separating the discourse and the gestures on purpose results in a bizarre choreography that distracts the attention of the audience from what the characters are saying and directs it to the image that lies beyond the words and the gestures. You can get a glimpse of their style by watching the presentation video of “Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech”:

I remember that, when seeing a video of “Air conditioner” for the first time, I thought: But of course! Why should a character’s words and their gestures tell the same story? When realizing that what the characters are talking about is not what the play is about, I found myself experiencing the same kind of surprise as when I saw Magritte’s “This is not a pipe! for the first time. The method employed by Chelfitsch hints at the potentiality of theatre to question the very basic things that are usually taken for granted.

The language that Okada Toshiki uses in his plays faithfully mimics the everyday speech of contemporary Japanese youth and one of its interesting traits is that the characters are often talking about things without naming them. This kind of verbal expression is nonetheless a characteristic of Japanese language, in which the subject of a sentence can be easily elided, with the communicative act still making sense.

After “Hot Pepper, Air conditioner and The Farewell Speech”, plays like ”Five Days in March” and “The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise” have gained high acclaim even outside Japan for exploring social and individual issues through theatre, in a bold and unconventional attempt to find new meanings for theatrical expression. In Okada Toshiki’s own words (from the pamphlet of Genzaichi), he conceives theatre as a “mirror”. According to him, what theatre can do is to raise a mirror to society and to show an image of reality, in the hope that a change for the better would occur if there’s a need for it.

Before turning to their latest work, Genzaichi, here’s a short video of “Five Days in March”, in order to get you acquainted with the performing style of Chelfitsch: