Haruna Lee’s Suicide Forest is not so much a plotted play as an emotionally driven piece of performance art. Sliding through dreamscapes saturated with Japanese cultural touchpoints, playwright and actress Lee allows the audience to undergo the experience of knowing that the way one is labeled by genetics conflicts with one’s sense of self. So deeply personal is their storytelling that their actual mother, Aoi Lee, appears on stage to represent the goddess mother, Mad Mad. Her mature face whitened and her vocals racked with pain, she carries her grief symbolically in both hands. The genuine pain was felt by the Lee family after the father passed away and the remaining members relocated from familiar Tokyo to unsettling Seattle. With Mr. Lee in ashes, the father figure here is a put-upon salaried worker, who interacts uncomfortably with his own daughters and inappropriately with Lee’s character, Azusa. The effect is unnerving whether your ancestors stepped off the Mayflower or you are a recent immigrant.
Lee’s story is disorienting and nightmarish, with dreamers and subjects exchanging places with frequency. All of the characters are portrayed in poetic fashion with exaggeration and bold strokes, making them more like mythical figures than warm-blooded people. But their feelings ring true, with repression and humiliation particularly starkly dramatized. Aya Ogawa’s dancelike direction builds on this illusory sensibility. The Japanese-heritage cast — Ako, Keizo Kaji, Yuki Kawahisa, Eddy Toru Ohno, and Dawn Akemi Saito in addition to the Lees —slips easily between English and Japanese, sharing their befuddlement and isolation with most members of the audience. The flashback candy pink set by Jian Jung plays up the sense of otherworldliness, encompassing a graphical pattern that cleverly takes on added significance in the show’s second half. Clothing by costume designer Alice Tavener combines elements of East, West, and cartoonish fantasy.
Holding this bold vision together is a taut framework of critical and timely conversation starters. What does society use to measure what it means to be a man, a woman, or neither? Is DNA destiny? And what are accepted cultural norms when you live between more than one nation? At one point Lee directly addresses the audience to share some of their thoughts on these issues, while designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew moves from stealthy shadows to literally illuminating the subject.
Experiencing Suicide Forest is uncomfortable. But this distinct work also provides a unique pathway into one person’s journey to self awareness that leaves a powerful impression. The production presented by the famed Ma-Yi Theater Company runs until March 15 at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre (502 West 53rd Street, Manhattan), Performances are Tuesday – Saturday at 7pm; Sunday at 5pm. Tickets are $30–$75 and available at ma-yitheatre.org or by calling 866-811-4111.