Back in old Japan, the “floating world” was a red-light pleasure zone of theaters, teahouses, and brothels where slumming samurai could party with concubines after watching a little kabuki. Like New York in the ’70s, these urban fleshpots inspired new forms of fiction and visual art devoted to documenting the louche goings-on.
In his new piece, Stopped Bridge of Dreams—now running at La MaMa—downtown auteur John Jesurun updates the mythology of this demimonde to an age of borderless travel and airy pixels, creating a floating world that actually floats (or flies, at least). His version involves a restless jetliner-of-ill-repute that circles the globe, dispensing pleasure in all time zones, thousands of feet above hinted-at dystopias. It’s run by a squabbling mother-son duo who like to imagine aloud that they’re unrelated. Mrs. X (Black-Eyed Susan), a grizzled pro, cheerfully admits to having had a superhuman number of abortions; her son Hiroshi (Preston Martin) is a little grumpy about being treated like just one of the geishas. Together, they supervise a rotating collection of escorts and customers, while participating in deadpan metaphysical chats: The flying bordello, it seems, also floats between life and death, feudal Japan and now—and, of course, being a theatrical vehicle, between fiction and reality. The script mingles swatches of quoted classical Japanese lit with song lyrics, Internet-speak, and pop culture references—a floating argot to match the airborne scenario.
The stage design drifts too: Performed on a narrow runway with the audience on two sides, the playing space is divided and re-divided by smoothly shifting panels. Above, giant projection screens show live-feed video from the onstage action—suspending the actors’ images in the air. The real-time footage alternates with pre-recorded poetic monologues, swirling abstract imagery (falling snow; what looks like human plasma circulating), or night-time panoramas viewed from above (these are quite ravishing).
Despite its metaphorical richness, though, Jesurun’s experiment remains unhelpfully cryptic. His alternate world is intricately imagined—and given the recent appearance of first-class cabins on luxury airlines, not that implausible—but we’re left wondering what it has to do with us. The piece pulls in opposing directions: The relationships between the characters are as complex and potentially combustible as any soap opera, and the elliptical dialogue and oblique plotting mean we spend a lot of time figuring them out. But the pastiche structure and cooled-down acting clue us not to care too much. The cameras and screens constantly give new vantages on the action without showing us why the interplay between live and filmed images is important. (You could maybe argue that the in-between-ness, neither live nor recorded, matches the placeless purgatory inhabited by the characters—but there’s no real thematic development in the way the production uses the images.)
More a formalist exercise than a compelling allegory, the piece hovers overhead without grounding itself in any wider reality that could give heft to its wafting scenes. In an age of digital technology, knowledge or service-based economies, and easy-access air travel, many of us spend a good part of our time suspended in the sky somewhere, and work by selling intangible skills. Our phone calls, images, and words get bounced off satellites; we do business with far-off voices. Are we all performers like the floating world’s courtesans? Is commodified pleasure all our untethered culture cares about? Does the digital realm keep us suspended between life and death, air and earth? These questions are suggested by the piece’s fertile premise, but Stopped Bridge Of Dreams ultimately stays hermetically sealed-off in a self-referential limbo.