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March 24, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Review – The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in Her Sleep

By Vivienne Plumb
Directed by Shannon Tubman
Cast: Clarissa Chandrahasen, Kerina Deas, Stephen Fearnley, Crispin Garden-Webster, Christine Hunt, Norie Parata, Kiel Taylor, Chris Tse, & Tanisha Wardle
Gryphon Theatre, 21 March, 8pm

The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in Her Sleep is community theatre whose processes of community creation off-stage are mirrored on-stage. Honey Tarbox (Christine Hunt)– a middle-aged Kiwi woman whose husband (Stephen Fearnley) has more than a little of the New Zealand racism and sexism – is the catalyst for community creation. When she starts to speak Japanese in her sleep, she not only dispenses advice to truck drivers, rich bitches, or Japanese-Kiwi garden designers alike but she also provides space for those seeking advice to share it amongst themselves. The gift that Honey is given may be delivered in the trappings of a different culture but it is a gift that enriches the one she so thoroughly represents.

Honey begins the play very much a put-upon wife. After what we assume is many years of a (perhaps) happy marriage to Howard, she is left with only the little dreams like going into the toilet in the morning to discover her husband has actually flushed the loo. Neglected by Howard, who spends entirely too much time with his yuccas and younger women, Honey potters around at the mall and is left wondering: “if he can have his yuccas, I don’t understand why I can’t have my Bonaparte Butler’s tray.” What she gets, however, is much more than the butler’s tray: she gets an identity, and importance of her own.

What was perhaps most interesting about this production is that it does not fetishise Japanese culture. Indeed, Shannon Tubman sensitively selects Japanese elements and incorporates them to create a successful hybrid performance. Throughout the production, a group of four “kimono girls” change the scenery as well as remind the audience of the mysterious, spirit world that pervades Japanese ontologies. This spiritual element is further heightened by the dressing scene where the translator-turned-hand-maiden Clementine Florica (Tanisha Wardle) and Japanese fan-girl, Momo (Norie Parata) dress Honey in a stunning orange kimono given to her by the Japanese ambassador. This sequence has such touching intimacy underscored by the ritual nature of female dressing it is simply breath-taking; both the actors and director deserve much praise for a great idea that is fantastically realised. It was rather interesting to hear an older gentlemen in the audience comment loudly: “she looks like a sumo wrestler” a perfect example of our often one-dimensional views of the other that completely miss the point.

Although the acting was generally excellent, standout mention must be made of Kiel Taylor. He perfectly portrayed John Campbell’s mannerisms and was an entrancing Kabuki-style dancer. He also made a very believable truck-driver called Reg who was about as far from an onagata as it is possible to get. The same flair, however, could not be found in the technical aspects of the production. The lighting was a little flat with nasty gaps that left actors walking though darkness at places and the music – although mostly good choices – was a little obvious in parts (particularly playing The Petshop Boy’s “Opportunities” when Howard and Clementine decide to go into business.) During the shadow-puppetry scene the level was too low and the magic was mitigated by being able to hear the actors shuffling around behind the cyclorama. However, the negative points in Tubman’s production were far outweighed by the excellence of the rest that they were of little consequence.

What The Wife has in abundance, as well as the sense of community, is fun. It is a really well written play that is acted by talented, dedicated actors. It also lets us laugh at ourselves, at our parochial ways, but also there is that little barb of seriousness – the way we treat women and those of another culture – that is delivered in such a way as to be thought-provoking rather than didactic. In short: The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in Her Sleep is great entertainment. Even though it is the first production Tubman has directed it is mature, compassionate, and avoids the hysteria that first-time directors so often succumb to.

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