In Shinsai, short plays explore aftermath of disaster

by Eric Twardzik / Beacon Staff • March 15, 2012

Tsunami 2
In The Remaining, directed by Anthony Rhys Jenkins, actors Eric Ibarra, Ying Songsana, and Matt Park looked into what it means for a loved one to be missing.
In The Remaining, directed by Anthony Rhys Jenkins, actors Eric Ibarra, Ying Songsana, and Matt Park looked into what it means for a loved one to be missing.

Michelle Roginsky had less than 48 hours to rehearse the short play she directed for Shinsai: Theaters For Japan, which took the stage of the Tufte Building’s Greene Theater Sunday. While other students were using the last weekend of spring break to relax, Roginsky scrambled to turn her living room into a makeshift practice space and her two actors into convincing characters. Exhausting as the process was, the junior performing arts major found it to be a spring of enthusiasm for theater.

“It’s things like that, these quick energy drinks that put your fire back in,” a calmed Roginsky said later, in reference to Shinsai’s vignettes. 

Shinsai, presented in cooperation with A.S.I.A., did more than just invigorate Emerson thespians. Shinsai, which means “great quake” in Japanese, is an international event that involved more than 30 playwrights and 70 theater companies. On March 11, Shinsai participants worldwide staged short plays connected by Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami to commemorate the one year anniversary of the disaster that claimed almost 16,000 lives. The proceeds from all Shinsai productions are donated to the Japan Playwrights Association, which aims to rehabilitate the theater community of the devastated Tohoku region. 

Performing arts professor Melia Bensussen brought Shinsai to Emerson and was soon joined in the effort by Director-In-Residence Benny Sato Ambush and other performing arts faculty in the effort. Faculty members chose student directors who they felt could stage a successful show with little notice or planning. Roginsky, Jeffrey Freeman, Anthony Rhys Jenkins, Curran Russell, and Rae Matthias   received the notice a scant three weeks before the event. 

Roginsky reamed through over 200 pages of potential Shinsai pieces, written by Japanese playwrights and big domestic names like Stephen Sondheim and Tony Kushner.

“We chose whatever hit us the hardest,” said Roginsky of the selection process, which for her ended with A Problem of Blood by Japanese playwright Yoji Sakate. 

A Problem Of Blood centers on the conflict in a blood donation vehicle between a man played by junior performing arts major Nico Walsh, and a nurse for the Japanese Red Cross portrayed by sophomore performing arts major Noelle Vinas. The man has bound the nurse and refuses to leave unless she tests his blood, so that he may see if he has suffered poisoning from the Fukushima reactor, which released radiation during a meltdown after the earthquake.

The two begin the play in a state of confusion, but tension builds in the blood-mobile and reaches a climactic point when the nurse tells the man that working at the reactor may have exposed him to radiation.

“Did I say I worked at the factory?” he replied, revealing himself as one of the many civilians who found themselves affected by the radiation.

Though Roginsky said working with a translated script created problems with language “lost in translation,” she enjoyed the opportunity to discover new theater. 

“It was fun to attack a small script that otherwise we would have never really been exposed to,” said Roginsky.

The four other shows at Shinsai ran the gamut from realistic drama to theater of the absurd. Freeman, a junior performing arts major, directed Where Were We, which focuses on the racial tension between a white mother and her half Japanese son. The two pore over newspapers that depict the destruction of landmarks they once visited. 

Jenkins directed the similarly realist The Remaining, which explored how survivors dealt with the “missing” status of their loved ones. The heart of the piece was delivered in a line by junior performing arts major Ying Songsana, portraying a wife waiting for her husband’s impossible return. 

“To be missing means that one day he won’t be missing. That’s what I think,” Songsana said

The Sonic Life of Giant Tortoises and Sayonara II approached the tragic with a surreal step. Tortoises, directed by Russell, follows a Japanese woman (junior performing arts major Faith Howes) as her morning metro commute descends into a dream.

Sayonara II, directed by Matthias, was a cryptic vignette that depicted the attempts of a woman (junior performing arts major Maria Carreon) to repair a poetry-spouting “robot” (Yurie Collins) so that it may recite its verse at a “place where many people died.”

Each play, a showcase of creativity in the face of an uncompromising time crunch, served as powerful, thought-provoking, and, at times, surreal fare. 

“It was such a great reminder of why I love theater,” Roginsky said. “We get together, try to do something,  and we don’t necessarily know if it’s going to work. But as long as everyone puts in their best, it doesn’t matter.”