Sock and Buskin’s production of “The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise,” now showing at Leeds Theatre through April 14, uses a University setting and fragmented narration to touch on themes of alienation, technology, identity and the mundanity of everyday life.
Written by world-renowned contemporary Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada and translated by Aya Ogawa, a Brooklyn-based writer, director and Japanese-to-English translator, the play is centered on a nameless couple dissatisfied with their lives. The man wishes to “live life more fully” and dreams of his girlfriend’s death, believing it would lead him to experience more emotion. The girlfriend wants to travel and imagines never getting off her subway ride to work and instead following the subway to a different world. The play’s title is derived from a Japanese folktale that inspired the work, wherein a fisherman visits an undersea palace as a reward for saving a turtle and, upon returning to land, finds that hundreds of years have passed. The technology-critical play’s title was partly influenced by Galapagos syndrome, a term coined in Japan that refers to the practice of creating specific technology that can only be used in a single locale, which consequently isolates that location from global markets.
One distinct stylistic dimension of Okada’s play is its use of multi-speaker narration. The show consists almost entirely of the couple’s fragmented monologues, but the protagonists and their castmates are played by several different actors throughout the course of the play. Okada’s original play had five actors, but director Kym Moore, associate professor of theater arts and performance studies, cast nine. Most scenes feature only one or two characters, sometimes with all nine actors portraying one character. Even single sentences are split up between several of the actors, making the show at times difficult to follow. “The conceit is that we’re actually one human being,” said Zachary Riopelle ’19, one of the actors in the show.
Though the speaker shifts take some getting used to, the constant flux of identity begins to seem natural as the play progresses, and the seamless transitions create bodiless characters that possess a variety of attitudes and perspectives. Sometimes, the inner monologues of the characters feel like a conversation between several people. “If I go inside the mind of any person, you’ve got about 50 different people in there,” Moore said, explaining the “slippage of identity” that occurs in the piece. The show is accompanied by abstract movement and a mobile set, adding to the constant feeling of transition.
In one humorous scene, which Riopelle said the actors call “the seminar scene,” the couple has an argument about the benefits of travel. The conversation is staged as a classroom, with all nine actors participating and inhabiting dual roles as the characters and as Brown students. To complete the effect, images of the University, including the Ruth J. Simmons Quad and the Main Green, were projected behind the stage. “We wanted to make it clear that this play has roots at Brown. You walk out onto the Main Green, and there are people who are connecting with each other, but then there are also many more people who are (on) their phones. … They’re half present, half not present,” Riopelle said.
Moore also discussed how technology can create the sense of isolation and alienation portrayed by Okada in the play. She wistfully reflected on a time without ever-present technology while also acknowledging its importance. “Smell the roses. It’s a very simple idea, but it’s very complicated because this is one place, Brown University, that does not know how to unplug,” Moore said.
She described the show as a gift to the community. “All of us have some version of loneliness or alienation or inadequacy or imposter syndrome. This is a shared experience,” Moore said.
The April 7 performance featured a Q&A with Ogawa, who has translated over a dozen of Okada’s plays. Ogawa discussed the origins of “The Sonic Life of the Giant Tortoise,” the difficulties of translation and the unique aspects of Okada’s writing style. Ogawa described the difficulties of translating with few punctuation marks and blurred boundaries between characters.
Ogawa also touched on how this piece can challenge Western audiences. “There’s an expectation or a desire to be led somewhere clear or they want to laugh, but his pieces tend to be so untheatrical in that way that we expect,” she said.
Riopelle commented on the way that the play confronts expectations of emotional performances. “It leans into boredom, and it leans into the mundane of our everyday life,” he said.