Saturday, March 12, 2016

Blood (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I didn't know much about Blood when showing up at the theatre.  A musical involving Japan in some way.  My hope?  An enjoyable hour or so of theatre.

Blood proved to be all about how AIDS came to Japan back in the 1980s, when the disease remained far more mysterious.  At first, no one even knew how it was transmitted!  One of the first events chronicled on stage was the very first Japanese citizen to have died of this.  An American doctor shows up to secretly perform an autopsy.  The very distinguished Dr. Kazama (Toshi Toda) soon falsifies the death certificate, a practice we see continue for years.  After all, Kazama insists, pureblood Japanese are absolutely immune to AIDS.

Yeah, that idea had predictable results.

The production happily did not shy away from the sheer scale of the subject matter.  Named characters, for example, number in the dozens!  Settings jump back and forth across the United States and Japan, mostly the latter from Tokyo to regional hospitals and even a small fishing village. But what most impressed me (out of very many things that did) remains how the entire show remained utterly theatrical.  All too often plays I see shifting scenery or location for short scenes, stopping the action in favor of moving things around in half-light or some such.  Not here!  Three mobile screens constantly shift configuration, often with images projected onto them to suggest either actual locations (like a city street or Chinese restaurant) or sometimes events (the Hiroshima bombing) or thematic elements (red corpuscles floating in plasma).  Not only does this make for rapid, smooth pace, it highlights sometimes difficult truths the story explores.

Credit: Ed Krieger
For example, Japan is indeed the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack.  In the wake of that attack, as a country it had to give up the idea it was in a very sense divine.  Except of course that kind of notion doesn't swiftly or easily die.  Here are a people in a state of flux, and what they will become no one yet knows.

This idea--that of a people evolving, changing--shows up again and again in Blood, without however any character actually talking about it.  Even the Narrator (Andrew Nakajima) changes, his songs and speeches initially done with Kabuki-esque make-up that vanishes in Act Two.

Honestly, this review could easily end up five times the length I will allow it to become, so brimming with ideas and nuance Blood seems to me. At heart it remains a kind of epic drama, told in a fusion of Western and Japanese styles--at times with great relish.  Lawyers at one time assume stances from classic Japanese theatre to discuss the advisability of suing over thousands of innocent people knowingly given infected blood (until the late 1980s no had had ever sued the Japanese government).  Elsewhere a chorus of ruthless businessmen and government officials sing a pastiche of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado.  A trial is presented, in part, as a stylized battle complete with swords and Samurai armour.

Credit: Ed Krieger
All of which serves to help us enter into this play's world, to understand better these events and their consequences. Make no mistake, this dazzling array of theatricality could--in theory--eclipse the drama.  I say "in theory" because the combination of performances and structure of the piece instead throws the humanity into sharp focus. Standouts in the cast include Sohee Park as Yoji Kurosawa, the attorney who finally persuades those poisoned by their government to sue, Miho Ando as the child patient/plaintiff Koyo Ninomiya, and Kazumi Aihara as the Nurse Eiko Asami who secretly helps provide evidence of what has been happening.  But to be fair the entire ensemble deserves plenty of credit for this amazing show, one that felt almost bursting at the seems for a larger stage, one to more comfortably contain the sheer scale of the show.  With that in mind, I hope Takuma Anzai, Ash Ashina, Anthony Gros, Alexa Hamilton, Takaaki Hirakawa, Michael Joseph, Saki Miata, Daryl L. Padilla, Mika Santoh and Taishin Takibryashi all get to walk onto a Broadway stage and re-enact this fantastical, heart-piercingly truthful dream in song and dance, based on events all too easily proven as having happened.

Blood plays at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA 90038 Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm, until April 3, 2016.

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