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Trying to Break Through Cultural and Language Barriers in Suicide Forest

Kristine Haruna Lee's new play makes its world premiere at the Bushwick Starr.

Eddy Toru Ohno and Kristine Haruna Lee star in Bushwick Starr's world premiere of Lee's Suicide Forest.
(© Maria Baranova)

"Uncompromising" is one way to describe the simultaneously confounding and thrilling experience that is Suicide Forest, now making its world premiere at the Bushwick Starr in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company. Kristine Haruna Lee's new play is, in many ways, deeply, profoundly Japanese in its thematic concerns, and Lee doesn't offer much for Western audiences to get a handle on beyond writing much of the dialogue in English and casting a bunch of native Japanese actors who are fluent in that language. Depending on your own cultural heritage, you might find yourself feeling on the outside looking in while watching the play.

To some degree, that sense of dislocation is in keeping with a play that is, as Lee eventually reveals toward the end, about an artist working through her own sense of cultural homelessness. Even before Lee turns such subtext into text, though, one might feel unmoored throughout the play's first two-thirds simply by virtue of her free-form sense of dramatic structure. During the first third of Suicide Forest, as she introduces us to the play's two main characters — Azusa (Lee), a 16-year-old schoolgirl, and a middle-aged Salaryman (a convincingly desperate Eddy Toru Ohno) — Lee doesn't so much build exposition as throw us a series of seemingly random vignettes. The result is less a conventional drama than an X-ray collage of an entire society: one in which hard work is valued above even one's mental well-being, women are objectified from an alarmingly early age, and youth are brought up to believe in the value of material things as status indicators.

Akiko Aizawa, Kristine Haruna Lee, Dawn Akemi Saito, and Eddy Toru Ohno in Suicide Forest.
(© Maria Baranova)

Instead of aiming for realism, Lee leans into a nightmarish surrealism, using Japanese pop-cultural markers to fashion her critique. In Suicide Forest, the Salaryman's after-work karaoke session with a younger friend (Keizo Kaji) becomes an opportunity for him to rationalize his society-mandated life choices; the Salaryman's two daughters, Miho and Chiho are perkily played by much-older actors Akiko Aizawa and Dawn Akemi Saito dressed up in anime-style schoolgirl attire (colorful costumes by Alice Tavener); and there's even a whole Japanese game-show sequence in which the Salaryman becomes the victim of a mean-spirited prank. Much of the action in this first half takes place in a triangular set that intensifies the feeling of a society suffocating its characters. In such a context, the darkly whimsical pink walls and giant red drops of Jian Jung's scenic design come to feel oppressive.

Only in the second half does Suicide Forest tip into full-blown fantasy, with Azusa slipping out of a window and the two walls of the triangular set opening up into a broader landscape: the "suicide forest" of the title, which refers to the "Aokigahara" or "Sea of Trees," a forest at the base of Mount Fuji that has notoriously been a popular suicide spot. Even the play's visual representation of this forest is made surreally metaphorical: Instead of recognizable trees, Jian Jung has pantyhose with rice suspended from the ceiling, one of which a clan of goats (Aizawa, Saito, Kaji, and Yuki Kawahisa) crowd around, break open, and pray over. Lee doesn't indicate the use of pantyhose in this fashion in her script; this is one of director Aya Ogawa's many fascinating directorial choices, one that psychically connects this meditative section to the first half's searing examination of Azusa's sexually stunted adolescence.

Dawn Akemi Saito, Keizo Kaji, and Akiko Aizawa as goats in Suicide Forest.
(© Maria Baranova)

And then [spoilers herein] comes Suicide Forest's last third, in which Lee and the rest of the cast break out of character and directly address the thorny issues of cultural identity and sexual awakening that the play had tackled more obliquely beforehand. With Lee not only recounting bits of her own personal biography (including her kinky first encounter with the film Boys Don't Cry) and even inviting her mother, Aoi Lee — herself a writer and butoh performer who plays a death spirit named Mad Mad in the play — to the stage with her to ask her some questions, this section retroactively gives the entire play the feel of a deeply personal therapy session.

Lee's sudden swerve toward introspective navel-gazing is a double-edged sword: As touching as it is to see an artist so willing to lay herself emotionally bare in this way, it does also leech away the more beguiling sense of mystery the play had heretofore built up. And yet, even if not all of Lee's formal and emotional gambits work, enough of them connect to make Suicide Forest an invigoratingly risky, genuinely thought-provoking experience, one worth seeing no matter your linguistic and cultural background.

Kristine Haruna Lee and Aoi Lee in Suicide Forest, which runs through March 23 at the Bushwick Starr.
(© Maria Baranova)
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