The Sonic Life of a Tortoise Examines Our Lack Of Fulfillment

Caroline Donica, Nasir Villanueva, Laura Menzie and Braden Hunt in The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise
Caroline Donica, Nasir Villanueva, Laura Menzie and Braden Hunt in The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise Photo by Natasha Nivan

Can we all pause for a minute and give thanks that Horsehead Theatre Co. exists in Houston.

While so many other companies in the city fill their programming with shows that fall into one or more of the following categories - well-known, classic, beloved, uplifting, genre-specific, acclaimed, traditional, new but digestible, creative but not too weird, crowd-pleasing – Horsehead instead gives us productions that are almost category-less. Perplexing and unique in structure, style and story, Horsehead shows are certainly not for everyone. They’re not even for most people. But for those of us that like to be pushed creatively to places we didn’t even know we wanted to go, these are the productions we look forward to.

Their latest effort, The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise: Youth Is Not The Only Thing That Is Sonic, by Toshiki Okada with translation by Aya Ogawa, is no exception. Okada’s work is gorgeously odd and once again Horsehead, here directed by the master of peculiar, Philip Hays with evocative video and sound by Peter Ton, manages to make the distinctly different a thing of creative beauty.

It’s our fulfillment as human beings that’s in question. Not really ours per se, but that of a young working Japanese man living in Tokyo. Our nameless character has had a good life, a comfortable life. One with no pitfalls. He has a job and a girlfriend. So then why is he so gloomy? Why can’t he seem to stop obsessing about the mundanity of day in day out and enjoy himself? Does every moment have to be fun to have a full life, he asks? Is the pressure to achieve this too much?

He’s talking to us in this show. We are the recipients of his “secret”, this wish to be more fulfilled. And amazingly while Okada breaks 3 cardinal theater rules in telling this story, it all works beautifully regardless.

Rule one – a character explaining his or her dream to the audience for more than a few lines becomes painfully boring.

Much of The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise is taken up with our man telling us his dreams. Not the kind of fever dreams that are more imagery than sense, rather these are more practically philosophical in nature, an extension of his ennui. We learn through dream that he has a girlfriend who longs to travel. However in his dream, she’s dead and he’s simply remembering her talking about travel. A wistful kind of remembrance. It’s not that he wants his girlfriend dead in real life, he tells us. It’s just that if she was, he’d have something to be nostalgic over and then maybe his life would have more meaning. Besides, he thinks he dislikes travelling and let’s be honest, her desire to travel is merely a desperate grasp for fulfillment on her part. Two peas in a pod.

Okada gives us other scenes that are less clear on the divide between dream and awake — is the man really sleeping on the subway when fellow travelers throw a party for him or is it simply fantasy? We aren’t sure and that’s just fine. Whether dreams, dream like states or light as cloud imagination, we listen intently as the man explains his emptiness and perhaps reflects ours back to us.

Rule two – Show don’t tell.

In a plotless script that consists almost entirely of talky stream of consciousness thought snippets, “show” is not high on the agenda. Here Okada gets a walloping assist from movement director Lydia Hance who turns the play into a kind of surreally choreographed spoken word piece.

Our man’s monologue is carried out by five nameless characters (Braden Hunt, Callina Situka, Nasir Villanueva, Laura Menzie and Caroline Donica) who take turns voicing his thoughts and playing supporting roles in this fractured, perspective-changing, dream-like narrative. Each one squirms, writhes, jerks, mimes, stretches or generally undulates while delivering their lines. It takes a few minutes to get into their quirky and often awkward break dancing moves, but once we snap into the rhythm of the thing, it’s a blessing. All that longing, all those words …without movement we’d drift off for sure.

The whole thing works best when the actors move together like synchronized swimmers, creating a kind of multi armed creature on the bare industrial stage, punctuating the dialogue not with grace, but a kind of twitchy urgency that brings life to life-weary plot. No question, the standouts are the women in the cast who seem to have both the physical and the emotional demands in perfect balance.

Rule three – Don’t whine about how unhappy you are for a whole damn play

Okay. That’s not really a rule, more like a pet peeve. For I can think of nothing worse than a woe is me plot that goes nowhere but kvetch-ville. But rather than whine and bitch, Okada (with a terrifically crisp translation by Ogawa) gives us thoughtful reflection that often hits close to home.

When our man declares that, “living has become more comfortable but as a consequence, things have become more difficult,” there were more than a few audience heads nodding in agreement. Okada isn’t after angst, he’s illustrating a creeping disaffection amongst a certain sector that could be scoffed at or could be heeded for its potential consequences. This is the privileged not caring. About any of it. Not their good fortune or perhaps, the misfortune of others. And we all know how no good can come from that.

Okada’s play has been widely likened to Haruki Murakami’s work as a novelist, and it’s not hard to see why. Both men take the traditional Japanese first person narrative and each display a keen sense of magical realism or fantasy in their work. It’s not a stretch to say that Murakami is the better known of the two, at least in Houston. To me, I see them as distinct talents, each with much to offer.

But in an era where name recognition counts and a theater scene where sometimes odd is a tough sell, I’ll say this. Read Murakami? Liked it? Then you need to see this show.

Never read Murakami but are up for 60 minutes of creative weirdness and provocation? Then you also need to see this show.

Rather be entertained or made to feel good with a straight ahead sunny script or a tune to hum? Nothing for you to see here then, move along and make way. And that’s perfectly okay. There’s something for everyone in Houston, not in the least because of the valued contributions of Horsehead Theater Co.

The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise continues through November 18 at Near Northside Studios, 1506 Lorraine. For information, call 832-786-0944 or visit $15 to $45.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman