Tragically complicated backstage lives make an enduring source of fascination for playwrights. Takarazuka!!!, a new play by Susan Soon He Stanton opening Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks series, offers more than a few twists on the timeworn onstage/offstage drama—among other things, it merges that narrative with another familiar theme: how Japan’s soul is unknowable to the West.
It’s the 1970s, and Yuko (Jennifer Ikeda) happily plays male characters in a Takarazuka company, an all-female Japanese musical theater. After training for much of her youth, she realized her dream and became a leading man for two years, a role she has embraced with existential fervor. Now, at age 25, it’s time for Yuko’s mandatory retirement, but she loves being a man on stage—and possibly also loves both Chifumi, her feminine-subservient co-star (Brooke Ishibashi), as well as a BBC reporter (Paul Juhn) who’s trained his camera on her for a documentary. Having transcended the era’s patriarchal repression through the magic of theater, Yuko now faces a bleak future even while the past haunts her (in the form of another ex-performer’s ghost).
Director Lear deBessonet has kept the focus simple for the cast of five, many of whom double roles, with uneven results. It’s a tricky story to sustain; Stanton’s play tends to sound the same note over and over again, and relies on creaky devices such as the phantom and the reporter’s interviews about the art form. These weak points could be overlooked, however, if the Takarazuka musical sequences demonstrated the passions allegedly at work; instead the show-within-the-play seems tentative and subdued. Takarazuka!!! might justify the title’s three exclamation points if at some point we could truly experience, and not just hear about, these powerfully liberating performances altering everyone’s lives.