In his native Japan, Toshiki Okada won the 2005 Koshida Drama Award (similar to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama). But, like Samuel Beckett -- a writer Okada is often compared to -- his work draws polarizing reactions and, at times, hostile critiques.
That is already the case here, as Philadelphia receives its first taste of his auteur style. This weekend Okada's company, chelfitsch, will perform his 2009 play, "Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech," at the closing weekend of the Live Arts Festival. Simultaneously, Pig Iron Theatre Company continues their production of his most recent work, "Zero Cost House."
"Toshiki really understands the way we can have a two-minute conversation and then think about it for two hours later. It's those two hours that are onstage, not the actual event," says Dan Rothenberg, who has directed two English translations of Okada's works: "Zero Cost," as well as the 2010 New York production of "Enjoy." "I think he exposes something about human beings -- what we actually think about most of the time."
At 39, Okada has emerged as a voice of a lost, economically displaced Japanese generation -- a world that is becoming all-too-familiar in the U.S. "Hot Pepper" revolves around a group of temp workers organizing a farewell party for a fellow temp (feel the irony yet?). Meanwhile, "Zero Cost" is Okada's personal reflection on the 2011 Japanese tsunami and earthquake.
"I think he's asking us why we don't make changes in our lives. Why we constantly say, 'I shouldn't panic. Everything's fine.' When are things not fine?" says Rothenberg. "I think you could say that this is political theater that is actually aware of how politics get lived by regular people -- how most of the time, whatever the situation, we decide it's OK: 'I'm not going to radically change my life.'"
As for the harsh reviews "Zero Cost" has received so far, it's nothing Okada hasn't already heard. "I experience this kind of thing in Japan all the time. The fact that the criticism is harsh doesn't affect me at all," he says. "I don't think it hurts and I don't think it helps. I am more interested in whether the commentary or criticism is just confined to the art world, or if it has an affect on people outside the art world."
If you go
‘Zero Cost House’
$28-$35, Arts Bank
601 S. Broad St.
‘Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech’
$28, Christ Church
20 N. American St.