Empire of the Son

Dates and Venue September 28 - October 21 7:30 pm, Wed. - Thurs., 8:00 pm Fri. / Sat. with 2 pm Sat. and Sun. matinees | Pacific Theatre, 1440 W 12th Avenue, Vancouver
Director Kaitlin Williams Writer/ Performer Tetsuro Shigematsu, Created in collaboration with Kaitlin Williams Stage Manager Susan Miyagishima Original Sound Designer Steve Charles Lighting Designer Jonathan Kim

‘You could say we’ve gone “a cappella”, Tetsuro Shigematsu writes in the programme note for Empire of the Son. Starting a run at Pacific Theatre, his one man show is stripped bare of its previous whistles and bells. How difficult it is to imagine the prior production - simplicity is its strength.

Set with only a waterfall of origami birds and a desk and chair, the stage is restrained but arresting. The fourth wall is absent; through engaged storytelling, comic bits, and uses of multimedia, Shigematsu takes us through the life and death of his father. Moving from Japan to England and then Canada, Akira has had a lifetime of big moments. Tea with the Queen, audience to Monroe’s Happy Birthday rendition for JFK, and witness to the blinding horror of Hiroshima, to name a few. Arika’s resistance to aggrandise them is just one of the ways he differs from his son. Not only divided by generation, but also culture and personality – Akira reserved, undramatic; Tetsuro a vivacious performer – the men often live in disconnect. Yet their similarities are unique and undeniable too: careers in radio broadcasting as well as an inability (or indoctrinated refusal) to cry.
Questioning his failure to cry provides an interrogation of masculinity as well as humour. Who will break this toxic generational cycle? Shigematsu answers with a photo reel, showing his sobbing son, roused by any strife, down to there being bits in his orange juice. But the crying issue is stretched to its limits by being forced to act as overarching structure over this successfully disjointed show. Shigematsu frequently points to his inability, compared to his sisters say, to show emotion. Yet - for all its funniness – his own show is lyrical, deep and tender. The relationship he fosters with his own children already show the ties of masculinity being undone.

Shigematsu may essay to force glory onto his father’s stories but he also celebrates the small moments. Ordinariness, even in death, is a thing to hold up and revere. Incredibly poignant is when Shigematsu carries his father into the street, remarking that while he can feel the rain on his skin, the body in his arms no longer can. This and other similar moments would have more room to stir if the humour was pared back. Jokes come in fast and loud, but sometimes fail to land.
Undeniable is Shigematsu’s talent. He personifies the very balance between ordinary and extraordinary in life which he seeks to demonstrate as sublime. You’ll want to keep listening to his stories. The odds are they would never run out.

© Eve Newstead

Photo credits:
Chelsey Stuyt Photography. Instagram: @cstuyt