A “festival tracking new theater from around the world,” The Public Theater’s annual Under the Radar series is in full swing at the moment. “New theater” is a large net to trawl but The Public is a committed supporter of the genre’s most innovative forms, which it nurtures year round through its Devised Theater Initiative. The DTI in turn launches artists into the festival, by way of the INCOMING! program of works-in-progress and, sometimes, from there, into UTR’s main lineup.
One work to take that journey into this year’s festival is Club Diamond, by filmmaker Nikki Appino and performer Saori Tsukada. The piece is either a very oblique tale of Japanese-US cultural assimilation in three vignettes, or a sly homage to Japanese silent film, or a formal exploration of narrative styles to underscore the fragmented nature of bicultural identities. Its individual parts are certainly charming but if Appino and Tsukada intend for the show to be more than the sum of its parts, they don’t convincingly do the math in performance.
The film is delightful and beautiful with Tsukada’s hand-drawn sets, a sustained atmospheric chiaroscuro, and silent film’s close frames and iris-out techniques, which all heighten a tongue-in-cheek tension. Cathy Lee Crane, who shot it in 16 mm black and white, is a Guggenheim Fellow. Violinist Tim Fain, who contributes the emotionally overwrought score that is typical of the silent genre, has worked with Philip Glass and performed in the movie Black Swan.
In Club Diamond’s movie, a fallen starlet of Japanese silent films takes a steamer to NYC where she lands in an “Oriental” review in a dingy cabaret. In Japan’s early cinema industry, we learn in the show’s introduction, screenings were voiced by a benshi, or live narrator, which Tsukada plays here (as well as the role of the starlet). That’s the first story. The second, told as a voice-over while Tsukada changes costumes on stage, is about a contemporary Japanese woman’s similar experiences upon emigrating to New York, where she entertains Japanese businessmen. The third you won’t necessarily follow without a reminder of the US occupation of Japan, but the benshi too has his own story involving a reversal of fortune, but this only sneaks up on you if you know to look for it.
At times it seemed there was a central narrative – the contemporary one – which, slight as it is, the film amplifies and the benshi ventriloquizes. Yet the program notes place the show’s emotional core with the benshi, who is reduced to eking out an existence as a street performer in US-occupied Japan, a plot twist I could not follow if I relied on the staging itself. Meanwhile, the show’s central locus of interest is the film, which contributes the lion’s share of what we see in performance. This runs a risk: when employed in a modern context, silent film’s exaggerated forms lend themselves invariably to pastiche and irony.
In short, while the different narrative devices – film, voice-over and live action – offer contrasting points of view on a similar experience of “otherness,” whether in a new country or an occupied one, these fragments never tell a story together. The best metaphor I can think of is Matryoshka dolls, where the whole contains many similar iterations but only the biggest is in view. The three stories are fragments, presented in a way that allows them to exist within and separate from the others, but they don’t help us understand the others better.
Club Diamond is a jewel in the rough, but Appino and Tsukada may still find their own benshi of sorts to build the compelling “immigration tale” they intend it to be. Tsukada’s live performance is worth the effort to bring these stories to the stage. She’s a winsome imp of a narrator, a sharp physical comedian and even a cool improvisationalist, pulling off a cute interaction with a reserved audience of performing arts presenters in town for the APAP conference. Long before even the age of silent film, that’s what was called a born entertainer.