All The Different Ways Commodore Matthew Perry Could Have Died….from Theater in Quarantine

Watch the 40-minute play by Julia Izumi below

Theater in Quarantine returns with another “Youtube theater thingy,” as Joshua William Gelb refers to this latest original, off kilter play that he performs  in the closet of his East Village apartment. I found this one, about the 19th century American military commander who forced Japan to begin trading with the West, among TiQ’s most entertaining, accessible and pointed.

The first half of the 40-minute play by Julia Izumi playfully enacts its long title literally: “All The Different Ways Commodore Matthew Perry Could Have Died Before Opening Japan But Didn’t.” With animation by Caroline Voagen Nelson , we see Gelb dressed in a 19th century military uniform killed by various diseases, poison, overeating and by attacks by a rock, a moose, a whale and a pterodactyl.

If there is a cartoonish quality to the serial annihilations, it also reads like a fantasy of revenge; you’re unlikely to imagine killing somebody 28 different ways unless you’re angry at them. 

Sure enough, the second half makes a case against Perry as a colonizer, imperialist and white supremacist, through a clever confrontation with the character by words typed live (with lots of typos) on the space surrounding him. 

Just a few years after opening Japan, Perry did die, from rheumatic fever, gout and cirrhosis.  “So he sort of got what he deserved,” the words (of the playwright) appear on the screen. But “the most infuriating thing about him is that he was utterly replaceable. Because even if he had died before opening Japan, they would have sent another guy.”

There is a third act of sorts, which turns personal, Julia Izumi talking about her annual visits to her extended family in Japan, and how she has felt like a stranger in both countries – all while we see her making an origami whale, and regretting that she hadn’t studied Japanese culture more as a child so she wouldn’t have had to learn how to make the whale “for this piece.”  She tells us, despite her ambivalence towards beaches as a child, ”maybe I’m always looking for the smell of the sea because the sea really is good for your health.” Whether or not this is meant as an ironic bookend to the 28 deaths of the lifelong seaman that she imagined at the start of her play, somehow the disparate tones and topics hold together.

In the video, the 40-minute play is followed by a 30-minute Zoom conversation by the creative team.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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