One of Japan’s buzz-worthy young theater companies, chelfitsch, is in town this week at theJapan Society on Feb 5-7. The troupe’s name is a baby-talk twist on the word selfish. This makes perfect sense given the context of the play, Five Days in March, written and directed by the group’s artistic director Toshiki Okada. The characters are maddeningly navel-gazing – holing up in a love hotel for five days at the onset of the US invasion of Iraq, deliberately losing total track of time. The actors babble on about liking bad films, boring soundtracks, travelling to Mars, escaping from the war, SARS.
As guileless as the characters seem to be, they can also set rules to shape apparently random acts, such as deciding to remain in the hotel for five days (the amount of money they have contributes to the length of their stay too), and buying three dozen condoms to use in that length of time. Their blithe hope is that when their time together is up, the war will have ended. They experience this intimate bond and yet never even learn one another’s name, and hope they don’t have to deal with future encounters. It’s not dissimilar to the confidences shared through avatars online — at times more personal than those shared among best friends in real time, face to face. Anonymity as the ultimate freedom; no pesky obligations.
The text is a sort of naturalistic, stream-of-consciousness ramble, with sentences petering out and thoughts overlapping, often circling around a specific thought, like fog surrounding a lighthouse. Expressions of concern about the war, about potential opposition to it in the form of protest, are alluded to as distant and yet extremely foreboding. War time is compared with love time, a way of personally measuring, and rebuffing, reality.
While the performers speak, they slip in and out of character, and move in funny ways, like they’re miming some action that has nothing to do with what they’re talking about. Some of it’s dorky, stilted, quotidian, bizarre. And sometimes they interact like what they seem to be – kids looking for companionship and meaning in a convoluted world from which they feel detached and helpless. More signals to intuit and patch together in this intriguing puzzle.
The somewhat aimless verbal coursing brings to mind parts of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, (read an excerpt excerpt) where paragraphs can stretch for pages and leave out no um or ah. The book revolves around two characters defined by those around them, each acquaintance’s unique voice creating a bolster that better defines the negative space inhabited by the missing protagonists. When enough witnesses speak, these two characters begin to take shape — a kind of DIY character construction kit.
The vagaries and stumblings of conversational speech take on a quasi-heroic aura in both tellings. It can be frustrating at times, sharply insightful at others — an inventive, deeply human, if workful, way of eventually getting at the point.