Two performances inspired by Fukushima

A bedazzling multi-media reverie and a kitchen sink debate on ethics, each capture the tragedy of nuclear disaster

By Linda Pentz Gunter

As we’ve seen in an earlier post, the Fukushima nuclear disaster has already inspired theatre among those who experienced it — along with the tsunami and earthquake — first hand. But it has also inspired those further away, in whom the confluence of these three tragedies invoked a profound curiosity.

Jessica Grindstaff of the New York theatre and puppetry group, Phantom Limb Company, decided to travel to Japan to film the aftermath and interview those who had lived through the triple disasters, with a particular focus on the nuclear catastrophe. 

British playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, imagined the moral quandary of nuclear physicists in the UK, responding — or not — to a near identical nuclear disaster for which they bear some responsibility.

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Falling Out. (Photo courtesy of The Phantom Limb Company)

Grindstaff’s piece, Falling Out, is a multi-media project combining movement, dance, music, puppets and a video backdrop, all of which blend together into an experience of profound, lyrical sadness and beauty that is very hard to describe in words. It is an overwhelmingly sensual piece, the life-size puppets — manipulated and sometimes cradled by the dancers — becoming lifelike in their movements and the feelings these express. The puppets, says Grindstaff,  represent “the people who were lost in the disaster and the puppeteers are always trying to reconjure their memory.”

The stage is set with those iconic black trash bags lined up beneath the video screen. Eventually the bags are tossed into a large pile by the dancers, then inundated by water magically represented with waves of chiffon-like fabric and extraordinary lighting. The finale is heart-wrenching, but, says Grindstaff, “I came to the conclusion that I could never come close to creating any kind of drama that is as powerful as what actually happened there.”

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Fukushima backdrop, Falling Out, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC (Photo: Phantom Limb Company)

Falling Out opens with the interviews of people Grindstaff met on her trip to Japan, projected on a big screen and who recall the loss of loved ones and the destruction of homes and businesses. In front of the screen, the dancers mimic the gestures of the speakers. Gradually, we come to see more of the ravaged landscape, including an unforgettable tracking shot through what seems to be an infinite repository site for those black trash bags, a searing reminder of human folly, and, says Grindstaff, a glimpse of a “land that will not be safe for humans in any of our lifetimes.”

Falling Out incorporates not only puppets, but two contrasting styles of dance — Japanese butoh and the street dance known as flex. Butoh, as Grindstaff explains, is “uniquely capable of capturing and inhabiting intense loss.” And it is that loss that is deeply felt throughout the performance. (The video below tells how Falling Out evolved.)

Falling Out is the final piece of a Phantom Limb trilogy that examines our now rapidly changing environment.

The first, 69°S, looked at ice in the context of Ernest Shackleton’s exploration of Antartica, and “aims to bring the unknown Antarctica along with the subtext of climate change to an audience while reinvigorating the spirit of foregoing individual glory for the sake of collective survival. ”

The second is Memory Rings, with its theme of wood and trees. “The memory of who we have been, the growth of the tree, and the changing environment are all represented with cycles and circles. The tree is a living record of everything that has transpired during its history as it stands in mute testimony of civilization’s encroachment.”

Falling Out captures what Grindstaff describes as “the paramount issue of water” and its powers of destruction and maybe also healing.

Kirkwood’s play, The Children, is set somewhere on the Suffolk coast of England at the country cottage retreat of a couple of retired nuclear physicists, Hazel and Robin, both of whom worked at the nearby nuclear power plant. As the play opens, we gradually learn that the nuclear plant has suffered a catastrophic failure, a result, at least in part, of a  tsunami and earthquake.

A visitor arrives, Rose, who also worked at the nuclear plant and has had, at some point, an affair with Robin. Given the dangerous environment outside, there should not be a visitor. So why did Rose come? To renew the relationship with Robin? To regale the couple with her life’s challenges after a 38-year absence? And why does Rose seem to know where to find things in a cottage she has supposedly never visited?

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Poster for The Children (Studio Theatre)

All of these are a deliberate foil to the real reason for Rose’s arrival, which, without giving too much away, it to jab away at the consciences of Hazel and Roy and the roles they all played in allowing this nuclear meltdown to happen. Who should take responsibility? And in what form? There are no children in The Children, but a central question that pricks at the consciences of the play’s protagonists is what they owe the children alive now, and future generations, especially in a world being ravaged by climate change.

Robin disappears from time to time to tend to the couple’s radiation-affected cows still pasturing at their farmhouse in the exclusion zone. Or does he? Is the marriage really okay? It’s another searing twist that cannot be revealed here. And, as the notes on the play remind us, “As the fallout from long-ago decisions comes hurtling into view, Rose unveils a proposal that threatens more than their marriage.”

Like Falling Out, a central theme of The Children is profound loss, although Kirkwood manages to weave plenty of humor into the characters’ lines, even as they are also laden with poignancy and deeper meaning. And it’s also about our impact on the planet and our failure to accept responsibility or change our behavior. “What is interesting to me is this: if we know the facts, why are we failing so catastrophically to change our behaviors?” Kirkwood asked. “I think it’s because those changes are enormous and frightening and demand that we give up things we have all come to feel we are entitled to.”

Giving up those things may be an imperative. But giving up, period, is not an option.

Says Grindstaff of the people she met in Japan: “What I learned from these people is that the accumulation of many people doing small things is what heals the world and that we all need to keep doing that. And in order to keep doing that you need to have a little bit of hope and you  need to have a little bit of optimism.”

Headline photo: Butoh master, Dai Matsuoka, performs in Falling Out. Photo courtesy of Phantom Limb Company.

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