Manga Takes the Stage: “Vengeance Can Wait”

Vengeance Can Wait brings Fringe audiences a welcome gift — a work by rising Japanese playwright Yukiko Motoya.  It presents the world of four young urban adults, as they struggle to establish their lives and loves.  Motoya’s storytelling is, the helpful program notes tell us, “influenced by anime and manga.”

Shiori Ideta, Joseph Lee.

Shiori Ideta, Joseph Lee.

In the production at the Underground Theater, this influence is hard to detect.  The play doesn’t reflect manga’s traditional ki-sho-ten-ketsu structure — establishment, development, climax, and conclusion. Vengeance offers instead a circular narrative, ending where it began.  It seems more influenced by Pulp Fiction, as a puzzling opener makes sense when we meet it again at the end.

Motoya’s creation — and repetition — of just two settings for her characters does rather suggest the stylized enclosure of framed manga panels.  And her characters are not so much fluidly developed as they are built from sequential moments of sudden intensity — like the posed, hyperdramatic images of a panel or anime scene.

All of which creates huge challenges for directing and design.  And Yukari Black, a novice director staging the first English translation, seems to have been seduced away from her material by American theatre’s dominant style of the last century, naturalism.

I think the aesthetics of anime and manga demand a more static, presentational staging style.   Less “realistic” movement between moments and scenes, for example, might create the sense of stepping abruptly from one panel to the next.

And Black might profitably push her actors farther toward a non-realistic portrayal, echoing the two-dimensionality of both manga and anime.  Leads Joseph Lee and Shiori Ideta have carved out much of this kabuki-like way of announcing and maintaining their characters — he as the cryptic Yamane, almost Asperger-like in his self-absorption; and she as the painfully selfless Nanase, an acid caricature of older Japanese ideals of femininity.

But I hate it when critics review the play they would have staged, instead of the one they saw.

So let me say that while it is a bit long, and deliberately confusing as the snake winds mysteriously toward its own tail, Vengeance Can Wait is energetic and engaging.  And it delivers — as promised — moments of quirky humor, and tongue-in-cheek mockery of “modern” sexual and ethical posturing.  It also reaches toward more seriously exploring what people need from and owe to one another.  (Some of this was lost in the climax, sadly, as shouting overpowered the words).

Kuro Productions has brought us a pleasing, intriguing gift.  It will whet your appetite for more work from this company, this author, and other young Japanese theatre artists.

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Vengeance Can Wait, by Yukiko Motoya (trans. Kyoko Yoshida and Andy Bragen), directed by Yukari Black.
Presented by Kuro Productions at the Underground Theater, 1314 N. Wilton Place.
Saturday June 21 – 3:00, Sun. June 22 – 7:00.
Friday June 27 – 5:00, Saturday June 28 – 5:30, Sunday June 23 – 3:00.

Tickets:  <www.hff14.org>