Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Carp Who Would Not Quit and Other Animal Stories and Ironbound
This response was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but after seeing The Nosebleed, jointly presented by Theater Mu, Walker Art Center, and The Great Northern Festival as part of the Walker's annual "Out There" series, I have to concede that the play is so bracingly personal to Ogawa's life experience and constructed out of their distinctive methods of processing experience, that it would take a very courageous director indeed to step into Ogawa's shoes. Fortunately, Ogawa has been able to stay with The Nosebleed and bring it to stages around the country, even as they develop new work. Their run in the Twin Cities, sadly for only three days, is part of a mini-tour, to be followed by short runs in Los Angles and in Columbus, Ohio.
The Nosebleed does feature an on-stage nose-bleed. Based on a true incident, Ogawa's then five-year-old son awakes in alarm with blood gushing from his nose on their first night in a Japanese hotel, having gone there to spend a summer immersing him in Japanese language and culture that he was not experiencing in their New York City home. However, the play is not about the nosebleed. Rather, that rush of blood, the life stream that connects Ogawa to their son, to their parents, and to their long line of ancestors, acts as a catalyst that prompts the playwright to question what they are doing with their life, why they feel compelled to infuse their Japanese roots onto their son who is growing up in America, and to discern their obligations to that culture–in particular to their parents, who were the conduits of their heritage after they immigrated from Japan to California during Ogawa's childhood.
A dramatized tour of memories and unresolved conflicts in Ogawa's life reveals their mother's stoic unhappiness and their father's stony inability to communicate with them, or, it seems, with anyone else in the family. Since both parents are now deceased there is no way to alter those relationships, but they struggle over how they might amend the legacy they carries as they moves forward in life, and if and how they transfer that to their children.
Along with directing the play, Ogawa appears in it. They take the stage, bounding down the aisle in the Walker's McGuire Theater to enthusiastically welcome the audience like a game show host about to give away a car. They then introduce four other cast members. Some interactive banter with the audience leads to a focus on the role of failure in our lives–not the feel-good notion of failures being opportunities to learn on our journey to success, but failure in its own shame-inducing self. Each cast member shares a failure from their lives–but these are low-impact failures, such as an unfortunate typo in a classified ad, or the consequences of being an inattentive dog-walker. Audience members are asked to volunteer their own "failure" story. After just one volunteer comes forward, Ogawa states what they consider to be their greatest failure–their failure to give their father the traditional rites of a Japanese burial, or in any other way to honor his spirit after his death seventeen years ago.
The four actors on stage with Ogawa are Drae Campbell, Ashil Lee, Saori Tsukada and Kaili Y. Turner. All four have been with The Nosebleed for all of its engagements since its Lincoln Center run in 2022, and all but Lee were also at The Nosebleed's premiere, presented by The Japan Society and Chocolate Factory Theater in 2021. Collectively the four play Aya Ogawa, fluidly shifting into an embodiment of the writer/director/actor at different times throughout the play, remarkably written and staged so that there is never any confusion over who is Aya at a given moment. Again, as in the notion of how hard it is to imagine a director other than Ogawa staging this work, this cast seems to be indelibly connected and their work as an ensemble is exquisite.
As for Ogawa, they play two roles–early on, the son who is afflicted with the nosebleed and later as Ogawa's father. That last is a searing portrayal, with very little text–when he does speak, it is in Japanese, though translated for us. Ogawa embeds their deeply felt, ensnared emotions toward their father in this performance, and it is hard to imagine another actor could ever bring such authenticity to the role. The look on their father's face of frozen agony as he faces his last days is astonishing.
In addition to their fractured portrayal of Aya, Campbell, Lee, Tsukada and Turner take on other roles as needed–Aya's mother, a doctor, a funeral director trying to make coin out of their father's death, and, in a scene that feels out of left field but later makes sense, a pair of contestants in the reality TV show "The Bachelorette." Locally cast Christopher Kehoe is the play's sixth cast member, as an arrogant white guy in a brief, highly satiric scene, who is sure he understands Japanese traits better than the Japanese-born Aya.
Jian Jung's set design is extremely spare, creating the feel of a seminar space, while her costumes lend a streetwear sense of ordinary life to the production. Megumi Katayama's sound design and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting design provide subtle but effective enhancements to the work.
Near the end of the 75-minute-long play, the audience is asked to provide input into an exercise in purging ourselves of the regret of unanswered questions, writing down our thoughts with paper and pencils provided when we entered the theater. Many reading this may be in the camp that bristle at such forms of audience participation, but I assure you it is put to startlingly eloquent use in The Nosebleed, a wonderful example of Ogawa's ability to respond to the reality that presents itself in life, and not be fettered down by what has been expected.
The Nosebleed is profound and beautiful live theater. It is unfortunate that by the time this posts, The Nosebleed will have left the Twin Cities. If another opportunity arises to see this unusual play, I encourage you to take it. Know though, that it is a unique, provocative and extremely personal work, unlike most of what we see on our stages. It may touch points of vulnerability within your own life experience, but also it also offers an avenue toward replacing those vulnerabilities with newfound strengths.
The Nosebleed was presented January 25, 2024 - January 27, 2024, by Theater Mu, Walker Art Center, and The Great Northern Festival, at the McGuire Theater. For more about Theater Mu, please visit theatermu.org. For more about the Walker Art Center, visit walkerart.org. For more about the Great Northern Festival, visit greatnorthernfestival.org.
Creator and Director: Aya Ogawa; Scenic and Costume Design: Jian Jung; Lighting Design: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; Sound Design: Megumi Katayama; Associate Lighting Designer/Production Coordinator: Vittoria Orlando; Production Stage Manager: Alejandra Maldonado Morales.
Cast: Drae Campbell (Aya 4), Christopher Kehoe (White Guy), Ashil Lee (Aya 1), Aya Ogawa (Aya 0), Manatsu Tanaka (Aya 0 4 understudy), Saoir Tsukada (Aya 3), Kaili Y. Turner (Aya 2).