Quasimondo brings a physical theater deconstruction of Japanese culture to the Fringe.
For better or for worse, Quasimondo's Kamikaze Cutesauce Cosplay Club didn't feel like a typical Fringe show. The condensed run over a single weekend, the charming little theater with bar at the C.O.W. (Celebration of Whimsy) and the creative team in the lobby interacting with the audience instead evoked the more intimate feeling of a standard off-off-Broadway production, a triumph for this Milwaukee-based company. Once the lights go down and the show starts, however, you quickly realize that this piece is anything but familiar.
It's difficult to articulate what Kamikaze is actually about, other than a series of vignettes featuring various archetypes and stereotypes of Japanese culture. There's the businessmen, the schoolgirls, the geisha, the samurai, the anime villains and more, interacting in largely non-verbal physical theater skits that explore what we imagine Japan to be through popular media. And while the ethics of creating devised theater about Japan without any Asian performers are questionable at best, the product generated from this outsider's point of view is certainly one of a kind.
In Kamikaze, we witness a collision between the old Japanese culture of geishas and samurai and the new, featuring J-pop, Sailor Moon and the constant use of smartphones. Sometimes these combinations yield fascinating results, such as the samurai master (Thom Cauley) dictating to the modern businessmen or a young man dressed as a geisha (Alex Roy) using his umbrella as a roulette table in a casino. Other ritualistic moments such as the whole cast tying ties together or the older geisha's (Jenni Reinke) traditional dances are likewise engrossing.
Both the dance choreography by Posy Knight, Jessi Miller and Jenni Reinke and the fight choreography by Alex Roy is very well done, entertaining and surprising audiences whether in a traditional dance, a high-energy pop anthem or a samurai or giant robot battle. Beautiful costumes by Alyssa Bolden add to the effect, especially her colorful interpretations on the traditional Japanese garb, though with such iconic costuming it is difficult to tell if characters are meant to carry over from one story vignette to the next. Are the schoolgirls always the same schoolgirls, even when they transform into their Sailor Moon counterparts or their androgynous businessman ties?
Unfortunately, Quasimondo's adoption of all facets of Japanese culture depicted in modern media also results in an uncomfortable relationship with objectification and sexual exploitation. The piece exhibits the worst of the stereotypes (i.e. tentacle monsters) without comment as well as everyday slights, and without any overt editorializing on why this should be the case, audiences may be left wondering why we have to see the girls' underwear so often. The bunraku puppetry scene in which an almost nude man interacts with a fully nude doll designed with the face of one of the actresses is particularly disturbing.
Ultimately, Kamikaze Cutesauce Cosplay Club excels when it moves beyond simple representation of pop culture to make a statement of some kind, especially if it moves the piece into the realm of absurdism. The overly enthusiastic, bordering-on-grotesque sushi commercials that punctuate the second half of the play are a good example of this, as is the soundscape of cell phone noises from the very first scene as we contemplate our increasing deafness to the real world beyond the haze of technology. Any audience members who have found themselves drawn to this show have already seen Pokémon and schoolgirl anime, so what new commentary do you have to say about them?
Two hours and two intermissions is clearly too long for this piece, a physical theater performance with almost no English dialogue and no overarching plot. Still, in a more condensed form, focusing on the scenes that have the strongest impact on the audience, Kamikaze could show promise, bringing an insightful look into how we as Westerners see and imagine Japan in the modern day.
Quasimondo and director Brian Rott have taken a huge task upon themselves to tell a story of all of Japan through movement alone, but Kamikaze Cutesauce Cosplay Club charges headlong into the fray. With some thoughtful editing and refining, they might stand a chance of accomplishing their goal.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.