Politics are hard to handle onstage. The audience needs lots of background, which can be tedious. Yet we also need our own experience of an issue, to find what we think and feel about it.
Almost a century ago, Bertolt Brecht, Helene Weigel and their Berlin collaborators developed a way to exploit this contradiction. Using direct address, placards, marches, and musical numbers, Brechtian playmakers force our conscious minds to analyze what we’re seeing at the same time as we identify with it emotionally.
A scrappy young company, The Garage, is using these techniques — and more — to put a powerful political story onstage in Hollywood. Blood, in its world premiere, tells how American “big pharma” firms colluded with Japanese officials to offload human blood tainted with the HIV virus onto that country in the 1980s — causing an outbreak of AIDS among hemophiliacs and other unsuspecting recipients.
The tale is a harrowing one, and the ensemble deploys an array of highly theatrical techniques (including several from the classical Japanese stage) to tell it. Indeed, given their limited resources, what they make happen in the tiny black box is simply amazing.
Speed and energy are the backbone of their storytelling: We barely absorb one moment before another, in an utterly different style, succeeds it. While actors whirl the set’s three panels into a new configuration, a new scene — in a new setting — gets underway.
The experienced hand of writer/director Robert Allan Ackerman (who’s led a galaxy of stars in award-winning shows in New York and London) is evident here. As playwright, he distills the complex events of a decade into a drama of a few characters within a few months. As director, he keeps the show’s incredible clockwork moving at a breakneck pace, never losing the intensity of outrage — yet always keeping open our ready access to feeling, and to humor.
At times, we gai-jin must wait through a dialog or song in Japanese (we’re always filled in swiftly); at times, characters speaking English with Japanese accents can confuse us. But this only accents (pardon the pun) the difficulty in two cultures trying to understand each other — especially when so much is being concealed.
In such an ensemble work, it’s hard (and almost foolish) to single out individual performers. Yet Sohee Park’s half-Korean lawyer and Kazumi Aihara’s conscience-stricken nurse give us a pair of reluctant heroes to follow, Miko Ando deftly creates the child victim who turns private disaster into public protest, and veteran Toshi Toda fills his stern antagonist with weight and feeling. Andrew Nakajima’s fearless singer/narrator pulls us through the weave, and Takuma Anzai injects a handful of roles with wicked energy.
These performers are ably supported by the brilliantly simple set (uncredited – Dona Granata?) and ever-changing lights (Donny Jackson), the astonishing costumes (Wendell C. Carmichael), and the nonstop sound design (Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski, with original songs by Nakajima, and by Ackerman & Chris Cester). Cavils? Only the wish for a little more space, and the feeling that the new Health Minister might have been played by an Asian ensemble member.
Blood, for all the outrage it stirs, also surprises and delights us constantly. The moment when Park’s lawyer leaps onstage howling, as a samurai from a kabuki drama; the way a courtroom debate becomes a stylized swordfight; the insanely bold use of a song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s yellowface Mikado to portray corrupt government ministers … these shocks add power and joy to what is, after all, a heartbreaking and enraging story.
The theatre you sit in, on Hollywood’s Theatre Row, is small and not elegant. But the theatre you experience, in Blood, is riveting and moving and confusing and hilarious and angering all at once. The Garage has reached madly for the moon — and they’ve achieved a theatrical tour de force that is not to be missed.
This play deserves to go to a bigger venue in LA — and one day, to Broadway. It’s a perfect example of why I gladly spend my career in LA’s small theatres. Domo arigato, Garage.
Blood, written and directed by Robert Allan Ackerman.
Presented by The Garage, at The Complex Theatres, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00,
through April 3.