The ghost isn't here

Vitalist Theater's latest struggles at the DCA

01/25/2012 10:00 PM

Contributing Writer

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Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr. Jamie Vann, Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Yadira Correa in Vitalist Theatre’s The Ghost is Here.

The man sitting across the aisle is dead.

I mean, he sure looks dead. He sits slack in his chair, his silver-haired head fallen and drooped slightly to the right, resting his chin on his shoulder. His eyes lay shut while gravity pulls salt-water taffy lips south from a slack mouth.

Suddenly, a quiet grunt. Eyelids flicker and open. The head jerks with a confused realization of place: asleep in the second row during a theatrical performance. Then back to sleep.

Similar acts of disinterest pepper the audience. A critic seated nearby doodles in his notepad. The couple in front of me whispers conspiratorially. Patrons peer into rafters and shuffle uncomfortably in their seats. Such behavior is commonplace in theater audiences, unfortunately, but it is a death kiss for a play on its opening night.

The Ghost Is Here, the new production by Vitalist Theater currently running at the DCA Storefront Theater, suffered this fate. It was warranted. This is unfortunate because the play itself is fascinating on many levels.

Penned by Japanese novelist, playwright and national treasure Kobo Abe, writer of Woman in the Dunes (1962), The Face of Another (1964) — both adapted into wonderful films — and many more, The Ghost Is Here (1958) follows the build-up and eventual disintegration of a puzzling get-rich-quick plot that plays out amidst the physical, mental and emotional rubble of post-WWII Japan.

When petty schemer Oba meets war vet Fukagawa, a plan materializes that changes both lives — and the lives of the entire city — forever. Fukagawa has an unseen companion — the ghost of a fellow soldier who died so that Fukagawa could live — and the seemingly unhinged, but sincere vet’s ramblings to his invisible friend stir Oba’s opportunistic brain.

The pan: the pair will buy photos of deceased individuals from the dead folks’ cash-strapped relatives. Fukagawa’s ghost will then search the netherworld to find the relatives in said photos, prompting the guilt-ridden relatives to buy back the photos at greatly inflated rates.

Or something like that.

The plan is confusing and preposterous, but it works nevertheless. Soon, the entire city, from the lowest street beggars to the upper echelons of the media and government, is ghost crazy, creating a fluctuating new paranormal economy. And it makes Oba and Fukagawa very wealthy. Such recklessness comes at a price, of course.

Kobo Abe’s script, which also weaves song and dance numbers into the dark comedy, perfectly reflects the era of its genesis: a time that saw Japan both revering and questioning tradition, history and authority and looking into an uncertain future. Its rebellion sits firm alongside the films of Seijun Suzuki, Akira Kurosawa and other artists of the Japanese New Wave of the 1950s.

The Ghost Is Here proves particularly prescient, as well, as the post-war economic uncertainties it presents mirror many contemporary troubles.

If only Vitalist could make it work.

Their production is clumsy and tonal jarring, gracelessly jumping between loud farce and ineffective drama. One direction or another would have suited the play fine, but the uneven mix leads the humor to fall flat and the drama to feel forced. The players’ adherence to the topsy-turvy nature sits strange, as well, allowing broad caricatures to sit uneasy beside more subtle renderings.

The play’s extended length doesn’t help. Despite the ups-and-downs, The Ghost Is Here drags through its two-and-a-half-hour long running time. By the end of the final act, the cast looked exhausted and disinterested. Much like its audience.

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