The Kimono Loosened
nytheatre.com review by Kyle Ancowitz
August 12, 2005
Yuki Kawahisa has accomplished something remarkable in her solo show, The Kimono Loosened. It won’t surprise anyone who hears her heavily Japanese-accented English to know that it is not her mother tongue. (She claims, in the program notes, to have hated studying English grammar at her ESL school in Vancouver.) Still, her skillful performance in a foreign language is eclipsed only by the play itself, which is a subtle and unnerving puzzle that amounts to genuine poetry.
Kimono tells the story of Tsukiko, a young Japanese girl who is sold to a Geisha house by her father—to say more would spoil the surprises. Kawahisa, with the cooperation of director/dramaturge Maureen Robinson, doesn’t linger on the exoticism of the Geisha figure; there is remarkably little that’s sentimental or romantic in this piece. Through the scenes of Tsukiko’s unhappy childhood, which are interspersed with dreams, layers of narrative gently peel away to reveal a lurid gothic thriller that recalls Edgar Allen Poe. Tsukiko’s doll, Sakura, who according to the Japanese tradition has a living spirit, becomes Tsukiko’s sole confidant and avenging angel. The proposition that Tsukiko’s doll lives seems terrifyingly plausible by the end of the play.
I was impressed with Kawahisa’s determination to create stillness and silence within her performance. Less confident performers lack the patience that she has to generate the atmosphere of mystery and menace that pervades the play, but she is saving the best for last. The intensity and detail of the characterizations deepen significantly as the play progresses. Kawahisa performs all the roles herself, dressed in sumptuous traditional Japanese garments and attended only by masked silhouettes that represent her mother and father. Grandmother, the Geisha house owner, memorably appears halfway through the piece to score some unexpected laughs. Late in the play, Kawahisa becomes mesmerizing as the vividly sensual older Tsukiko. The sexuality in the play is unabashedly unhealthy and never divorced from the sense of subjugation that tattoos Tsukiko’s life, but it still smuggles a lip-curling thrill.
The real success is the play itself. The language is disarmingly simple and unmannered, but Kawahisa gingerly layers fiction, fable, and the mystique of a faraway place in another era into an entrancing creation sweetly poisoned with the taboo. If the final sequence of dreams and fantasies confuse the storytelling somewhat, it doesn’t diminish the final moment, when we sense that the enchained crimes of the mother, the daughter, the enchanted doll, the possessors and the possessed, the punished and the punishers have all blended together until their separate identities are lost and forgotten. The performance ends with a crisp final tableau in which the doll, the mother’s mask, and Tsukiko’s living face are briefly, but startlingly, indistinguishable.