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Skin Deep

Maile Wong. Photo by John Cornicello

Nadeshiko is the original creation of writer, director and actor Keiko Green. Directed by Kaitlin McIntyre, it’s the opener for Sound Theatre Company’s 2017 season, “AMPLIFY! Raising Women’s Voices.” Green wrote the play with some serious existential questions on her mind. For example (from the STC website): How do idealized notions of beauty affect our perceptions of women and their roles in society? This production juggles surprising moments, tantalizing enigmas, a reasonable bit of filth (could have been more), fireflies, supernatural powers, a few laughs and a few tears. (And we really need to talk about that dead old woman! She’s a hoot.) But some of the deeper messages got rather lost in the shuffle.

“Nadeshiko” is a Japanese word that refers to the idealized beauty of Japanese women. “There is something particular about how we have assigned the role of caretaker, of reactionary vessel, to women of Asian Heritage,” Green says in the program. The name Nadeshiko is taken from a beautiful, delicate-looking pink flower that hides complex strength and utility behind it’s deceptive fragility. But in this context, the word also refers to a peculiar WWII Japanese military phenomenon called “the Nadeshiko Unit”—an organized group of beautiful young girls who served as ornamental morale boosters to doomed Kamikaze pilots. The play moves back and forth in time and space between embattled 1940s Japan and present day America; between a young girl in the Nadeshiko Unit, and her modern American granddaughter, who is (ostensibly) a sex worker.

Risa (Maile Wong) is young, foolish and financially desperate, reluctantly trying to make a go of it in the glamorous world of pay-for-play cam sessions and Craigslist personal ads. She labors under the grouchy tutelage of her much more experienced cousin Sue (Mi Kang), who has long made a living at it. Sadly, Risa is quite a terrible sex worker, even on Skype. Mostly, she asks rude questions and whines a lot. You can tell her heart isn’t in it.   

On her first in-person gig, Risa goes to the spotless apartment of an upper-middle-aged/-classed white client (or, “pervert,” as she slips and accidentally calls him) that she fished off of Craigslist, a real milquetoast (whose real name doesn’t matter), played beautifully by Greg Lyle-Newton. He’s halting and twitchy, has zero backbone, a pair of comfy-looking moccasin slippers and a closet full of possible skeletons. He’s weird. He’s a mystery. They develop the proverbial, “unlikely friendship.” Awkward adventure and painful personal growth ensue.

At the beginning of Act Two, however, we find ourselves in the past, in a small Japanese village, watching a Japanese girl (Risa’s future grandmother, also played by Mi Kang) totally stalk a handsome new soldier called Toshio (played handsomely by Josh Kenji). She follows him through the streets, peeking from behind cherry blossoms, consumed with curiosity, until they finally confront each other. He’s a kamikaze pilot, proud, sensitive, fraught, on the verge of his only mission. She’s sassy and brash, with stars in her eyes. You see where this is going: Awkward adventure and painful personal growth ensue.

The two stories are a bit lopsided, heavy on the escort adventures, light on the WWII storyline. The nascent romance between Toshio and young Nadeshiko was far too brief to have any real meat on its bones (his raison d’etre was to rush off and blow up, after all). And there was really no point at which these two storylines clicked into a satisfying narrative whole.

But we need to talk about that dead old woman! She is the (unbeating) heart and (dearly departed) soul of the production. She is Risa’s grandmother in old age, now a ghost stuck in limbo, rather new to the whole ghost thing, and just about the cutest old Japanese granny that ever dropped dead.  She breaks the fourth wall to act as both narrator and guide, moving us through space and time using the formidable power of her, “Oooooh! Ghost magic!” (Although STC’s elegantly simple stage crafting was capable in every respect, please do not imagine any great feats of special effects here—mostly, she just gestures grandly and the lights flash on and off. But it’s still freaking adorable.) She is played with magnetic warmth and lighthearted sass by Ina Chang. She kind of ties the whole thing together.

Nadeshiko is an enjoyable and thought-provoking production. Does society value women, especially Asian women, as primarily ornamental—breathing objects d’art? And if so, how do women react to/overcome/learn to function with this sorry state of affairs? These are important questions. But had I not been lead to them after the fact to the play’s deeper considerations and loftier socio-political ambitions via the STC website and the show’s program, I’m not confident I would have stumbled upon them at all.

Nadeshiko runs through May 7. 

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