“Who here loves their father? Who here hates their father?” Aya asks the audience each time for a show of hands, and then volunteers: “I hated my father.”
Aya Ogawa’s “The Nosebleed” at Lincoln Center Theater is much the same offbeat, intimate autobiographical play I saw ten months ago at the Japan Society, but I noticed one difference, which changed the way I reacted to it.
The play still focuses on Ogawa’s long-dead father and their failed relationship, telling the story in an oblique and inventive way. Aya Ogawa, a Tokyo-born, Brooklyn-based playwright, director, performer and translator, goes by the pronouns she/they, which is apt in this play, because Aya is portrayed by four performers (three of them the same as in the previous production.) Ogawa is also in the cast but she doesn’t portray herself. Rather she is either her five-year-old son Kenya (he’s the one with the nosebleed) or her father (who usually has his back to the audience, and Aya, hunched over his desk.
“When my father died, I was 33 years old,” Aya 4 (Drae Campbell) tells us. “And in those 33 years during which our time on this planet overlapped, we had two conversations.” Neither of them are heartwarming, but they’re not evil either – their currency was money, rather than love — as we then witness the encounters dramatized primarily by Aya 1 (Ashil Lee) and Ogawa with assistance by the other Ayas (Aya 3, Saori Tsukada, sometimes portrays Mom.)
At his death, Aya paid back his emotional neglect by not holding a funeral or even a memorial service, and by not submitting an obituary to the local newspaper.
The playwright directly involves the audience in the freighted father-child relationship and in their effort to make amends. (Don’t worry, audience participation is entirely voluntary.) This leads to a final scene, a kind of ritual of closure, that’s solemn and surreal, and funny, involving both Buddhist funeral practices and Princess Diana.
It’s important to point out the lengths Ogawa goes to make the show feel easygoing, and the audience feel comfortable. At one point two of the Ayas act out an episode of “The Bachelorette,” which winds up being relevant (they talk about their fathers), but sets a comic tone. “The Nosebleed” begins with each cast member introducing themselves as the character they’re portraying (Aya 1, 2, 3, or 4) but first by telling a “personal story of failure” – all of which were light and insignificant. Ashil Lee talks about putting on her mask wrong, Drae Campbell about an obnoxious date who grabbed leftovers from an empty table in the restaurant, not realizing that the diner had simply gone to the rest room. (“My failure was in going on the date.”)
But when they were finished, Ogawa poured fake blood on her face and let out a piercing scream.
This was Kenya with the nosebleed. And this is when the production started to seem different to me.
I didn’t remember the scream as anywhere near as fierce and scary, nor her face as bloodied, at the Japan Society.
This could be a trick of memory, of course, but there were other clues that Ogawa, director of both productions, has ratcheted up the intensity.
Ten months ago, she told the audience that the play “began as an exploration of failure. “
At Lincoln Center, she called it “one of the greatest failures of my life.”
In both productions, there is a single scene featuring the White Guy (that’s the character’s name in the program), who marvels at how Aya is the only Japanese-American he knows who doesn’t have an accent. His cluelessness is obvious; it’s no great leap to understand that Ogawa sees this as indistinguishable from racism. But in the Lincoln Center production, upon his exit, all the Ayas collapse dramatically in exasperation, and maybe something close to fury. I don’t recall a reaction that was so exaggerated (and unnecessary; we get it.)
Ogawa has made the play a bit broader, harsher, less gentle. This only mattered to me because, whatever else the play is about — one implicit theme, for example, is the immigrant experience of being of two cultures — the play struck me as being most about vulnerability. That explains the title. That explains the effort to prompt audience members to think about their own troubling feelings toward their family.
The shift in tone to something more strident, less gentle doesn’t make the final scene of ritual reconciliation any less theatrical or impressive. It just feels a little less healing.
At Lincoln Center’s Claire Towe Theater through August 28
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Written and directed by Aya Ogawa,
Sets and costumes by Jian Jung, lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, and sound by Megumi Katayama.
Cast: Drae Campbell, Ashil Lee, Chris Manley, Aya Ogawa,Saori Tsukada, Kaili Y. TurnerPhotographs