Theater reviews: “The Nosebleed” and “Hindsight”

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Of Nosebleeds, to the Japanese Society.
Photo: Brian Rogers

Before the show starts at the Japan Society, director and playwright Aya Ogawa invites the actors to tell us about a failure. from Ogawa Nose bleed stems from a multi-year teaching and workshop project on the concept, in which Ogawa encouraged other playwrights to work and claim their failures. From their manager’s note, they couldn’t help but think that they were dodging the mission themselves, keeping themselves protected while the others undressed. So Nose bleed is outspoken, vulnerable, and full of Ogawa: For the entire diaphanous show, they are on stage alongside four other actors, all also playing Ogawa. Together, the five-headed Ogawa-self leads us on a stone path through the most difficult times of a lifetime.

But first, the actors become themselves. The smiling Haruna Lee admits her shyness in speaking Japanese with the technicians on site; Drae Campbell reveals a rough time with a smelly pug she was having her dog look after. These daily shames do not affect what Ogawa will reveal – a brutal self-doubt on a trip with their children to Japan (during which one of the children has a nosebleed); a missed opportunity to put a racist and offhand Brooklyn dad in his place; and a ruined and ruinous relationship with their own father, characterized by silence and hostility.

Ogawa’s mode for Nose bleed is at first almost talkative. Two of the Ogawas play a scene from The bachelorette which raises issues of interracial dating and family separation. Different Ogawas speak directly to us, speaking of fears of being a bilingual mother raising children who might not follow their example. There is something that catches the eye about these vignettes – they are dealt with quickly and with a laugh. It wasn’t until Ogawa (the real one) dons a members-only jacket to play his own father that the show begins to vibrate at a deeper frequency. The lightness doesn’t exactly go away, but it’s starting to feel like the touch we apply to very hot, very painful things. Ogawa’s failure to have a relationship with this difficult man sets off further misadventures: failure to help him when his mind begins to go away; a failure to say goodbye adequately after his death. Suddenly, the reason the many selves become clear – they can lead the amorous funeral that the original Ogawa never could. Even the public is called for help: many hands lighten the load.

Of Hindsight, at the Factory of Paradise.
Photo: Santiago Felipe

Something similar happens in Hindsight, although its aesthetic cannot be less like the spacious, calm filled Nosebleed. In a crowded little theater cluttered with props, a woman works at a messy desk. When the lights go out, she looks up. “Oh, hey, I’m the playwright,” she said. A little burst of laughter crosses the small audience. “You weren’t expecting that, were you?” She laughs back. In fact, the edgy-looking woman with the laptop will try to destabilize us on several occasions as we work our way through Alix Sobler’s self-fictional attempt to fight the cause of our polarized politics. Even after an hour of explaining why she wrote the play we’re watching, the woman lazily wonders if maybe she isn’t. Sobler. Has she lied from the start? When someone promises you they’re telling the truth, every indicator light on your dashboard should glow red. If the last 30,000 years of human development have taught you nothing else, they have taught you.

Sobler (that’s really her) doesn’t go back that far, though – she’s pretty sure the crucial breaking point in public trust came about 30 years ago. Sobler is convinced that the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, a 1949 FCC rulebook on the “fair” presentation of controversial issues in television news, holds the key to our current problems. Its actors compete, hamamé, to define the Doctrine for us; Sobler manages to silence them only by reading the FCC rulebook directly. It features the four Reagan-appointed commissioners (including the touching Daniel Pearce as James H. Quello) who will vote on the rule, and they bicker fiercely. Sobler keeps telling us that if she can adequately dramatize the meeting when the government opened the door to alternative facts, she will have – what? As the show progresses, Sobler deliberately reveals the weakness of his own project. At one point, forced by an actor (Craig Wesley Divino) to state the counter-argument to her left-wing position, she suddenly becomes convincing.

Sobler writes about failure of good intentions, his most convincing. Whenever something goes wrong in a scene, she looms aside with her hand raised to take the blame. Autoflagellation begins to affect the structure of the show, which continues to be interrupted by a repeated scene from Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 with Sobler’s politically divided family. She would rather not see that horrible Thanksgiving dinner again, but it’s clear the fight haunts her and so does the play. She admits she misjudged the Commissioners’ discussions, which include facts they couldn’t have known and 21st century retrospective reasoning. This failure that she and director Aaron Rossini deal with lightly, with cheesy ’80s needle drops and behavioral exaggerations, encouraged by a cast picking up speed even with a tiny track. These scenes from 2016, however, tighten that cowardly mood. The arguments are in a loop: the words do not change, but as they are repeated, the mood becomes bitter, then violent.

The general rhythm of the comedy wavers at times – the recursive structure too often seems to run across the same ground; there are diversions (a discussion of equal employment opportunities) that distract rather than enrich. And, of course, there’s the fact that the play keeps persuading you of its own inability to find any certainty or even a way forward. Yet is it really that bad? After a double bill of Hindsight and Nose bleed, it is more and more difficult to regard this quality mired in the old as a defect. In both plays, writer-performers show how to reach out to a father who will never understand, who has never heard. Who cares if we can’t find the answers in the past? Isn’t it still worth looking back? We have to learn somewhere how to reach out to things that cannot be turned back. This particular failure will ultimately be relevant to all of us.

Nose bleed is at the Japan Society until October 10.
Hindsight is at the Paradise Factory until October 23.


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