Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kamikaze (review)

Spoilers ahoy!.... kinda/sorta

Full disclosure. Kamikaze is a one woman show performed by Vanessa Cate and directed by Zombie Joe. I know both these folks and consider them friends. More, I've enjoyed every single thing either one of them has done. Genuinely. One reason for this remains the fact I got to know their work first, then the people. But I'm not uncritical of either one.

Zombie actually called me "ruthless" once. I think he meant it as a compliment.

But to the show!

Kamikaze makes an excellent example of Performance Art--a tricky form because it nearly always comes from a highly intuitive place. Elements juxtapose in a way that make little or no literal sense but somehow "fit." Dance, mime and words blend, along with singing or interactive activities with the audience. Absolute reality and precision go hand-in-hand with the bizarre, the deliberately vague, the nonsensical. Frankly, most attempts at it crash and burn. It takes an unusual focus coupled with particularly strong performance skills to pull off.

This one does indeed work. I went in with as few expectations as I could manage. Still, the show did surprise, startle, fascinate. Almost immediately, as the lights rose, the one thing very few performers or performances offer at the very start appeared.

Photo Credit: Zombie Joe's Underground
Stillness. Following by slow, precise movement. Frankly, this shouldn't have worked. But it did. One reason remains the intimacy of the space (Zombie Joe's is not a large venue). More importantly, Vanessa Cate remains an actress of great stage presence. A difficult thing to define, that, but almost impossible to miss when revealed. When darkness fell once more, we in the audience heard singing, in this case the so-called "Ophelia Song" by William Shakespeare (Cate had several roles in ZJU's wonderful Hamlet last year, but not interestingly Ophelia). The lights rose, and we all laughed. We were watching Cate simply...shop. Something about the smile, the way she picked up items and put them in the imaginary basket, moved around the store... To be sure, a fine example of mime, but one cannot quite put your finger on what it might actually mean.

And that is kinda the point. Language is wonderful. I myself love words and the potential they offer, the insights and messages to which they give shape. But part of this show revels in the subtleties of experience for which we have no words. Language not with sound or symbol, but experience.

The same applies to when the lights shifted and we got a genuinely hilarious bit of Cate simply driving. Why was it so funny? And why did it seem something else was going on? Likewise, how come these odd images and movements connect in the way they feel as if they do? Ditto the next segment that intercut three wildly different scenarios (the program listed this part as "So Fine"/Fish/Hell and that actually does make plenty of sense as far as titles go).

When performance art works, it often feels as if one has just visited another person's dream. And such was precisely my reaction to this one woman
Photo Credit: Zombie Joe's Underground
show. The skits and pieces that make it up rattle around my heart still. Like a therapist, my inclination is to interpret the dream. So I look at a major clue, the title of the show. The program helps, as it gives a definition:

ka-mi-ka-ze (noun) 1. Japanese "divine wind" (from the legendary name of a typhoon that in 1281 saved Japan by destroying the Mongol navy): kami divine + kaze wind 2. A Japanese pilot trained in World War II to make a suicidal crash attack, especially upon a ship. 3. Slang - An extremely reckless person who seems to court death.

Of course, Vanessa Cate, as a veteran of Urban Death at ZJU, could mean far more than the death of the body. Interestingly, she also made a point of saying in the program how the Kamikaze was viewed as a legendary salvation.

What I got out of this work was the odyssey of a woman's soul, from trying to understand the world, to enjoying/experiencing what it has to offer, to feeling the pleasures and tortures of life, then coming to some very personal answers. We see her delve into madness, into nightmare, clearly finding great pleasure in things (an actress I know in the audience opening night had a very pleasing surprise at one point) but also emerging from trauma.

One of the most clear-cut, most "linear" parts of the piece was simply titled Tracy.  This one frankly comes across as a mini-play in and of itself, an
Photo Credit: Zombie Joe's Underground
autobiographical account of a friendship. Cate, wearing a floral dress and matching glasses (!) stood prim and enthusiastic, telling of her friend Tracy. How they were girls together. How they grew apart, without our narrator seemingly noticing--a bad sign. At first the story is funny, very much so. Yet Cate's character, like nearly all founts of real comedy, is tragic. Here there's something marvelously subtle I feel the need to praise. This monologue is not written in great prose. It doesn't create fantastic word pictures nor do the words invoke the essence of what's happening with the precision of a haiku. Because that would not be this character's vocabulary. Rather, Cate's performance does all that. Standing almost perfectly still, with almost the same expression throughout, her voice bled this character's soul all over the stage. First a drop or two, then a trickle, then a vein opened up. A tour-de-force and that one section alone would be worth the price of admission!

But that did not complete the night's journey. No, Cate went on with several more pieces, including her poem "I Am Raw" and a monologue lifted from a decades-old movie, equal parts cheesy, awesome, beautiful (in no small part because Cate herself is), insightful and just a bit disturbing. A nice comment on art, that, and to be expected really from the author of Fragments of Oscar Wilde. Art, even pop art, lives because it says something true. Don't such things provide individual building blocks of our psyches, our souls? Sharing them, sometimes, takes courage. This segment does take that, on several levels. But by then we rather expect it.

And when it ends with martial arts, that seems very right as well.

Kamikaze plays at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm from Sept. 20 to October 5, 2013. You can find the venue at 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (across from KFC) North Hollywood 91601. You can make reservations by calling (818) 202-4120

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