Friday, March 6, 2015

Live Arts Review: Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech

Despite their stylistic complexity, Toshiki Okada's three intertwined plays offer little insight, says critic Jim Rutter.

Live Arts Review: Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech

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Toshiki Okada’s triptych of plays operates on two levels. The first pokes fun at the absurdities of office life. Three temps must plan the retirement party of a permanent worker. Great, despair-addled problem: What restaurant should they select, since they barely know her?

Most jokes emerge from Okada’s clever comedic techniques of unimportant phrases and perspectives repeated ad nauseum, such as a co-worker debating the morality of temporary workers violating the office hierarchy. These speeches complement a formalized, presentational style, but despite the actors speaking Japanese, (supertitles, including Wikipedia jokes, appear on the back wall), little but their rail-thin physiques distinguishes them from their American counterparts.

Okada’s repetitious choreography deepens the absurd situation; a couple flirts, with each other and with the line between hitting on and harassment. He dips into long crouches to peer up her skirt while she complains of an air conditioner set to an unbearable temperature.

The second level interweaves an existentialist meditation on young Japanese workers in meaningless, corporate conditions. A farewell party serves as a finel meal; each worker wonders what she would eat on her last day. In the titular farewell speech, the retiree tells a rambling, ominous story about stepping on a cicada, crushing a creature “that emerges above ground for a short time, only to spend its life crying.”

A metaphor tucked within an absurdity, sure, but neither approach transcends the obvious. The British and American Office series provided more palatable humor, and Okada’s sole insight comes unintentionally, showing that existentialist writers can only depict and describe— in this case, humorously — but otherwise offer little else of value. 

--Jim Rutter

Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech.  7 p.m. through Sunday at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American St. Tickets: $28 to $35. 

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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