The Empire of the Son: setting

Publicity photo for Empire of the Son

The thrill is gone.

When I first saw Tetsuro Shigematsu’s solo show Empire of the Son, when Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre produced its premiere seven years ago, I was so moved that, two weeks after seeing it, I still couldn’t talk about it without crying. But this Pacific Theatre production largely left me cold.

Figuring out the crucial factors in my differing experiences is tricky.

The script hasn’t changed much. I checked.

In Empire of the Son, which is autobiographical, Shigematsu explores the difficulty he had expressing emotion in his relationship with his recently deceased dad, Akira. They didn’t touch each other. Trying to address his father, Shigematsu choked on the words “I love you.” The playwright/performer acknowledges that Akira, who grew up in Japan, embodied the restraint that culture can be known for. But emotional alienation among men — especially between fathers and sons — is crushingly common in Western cultures, too. So it’s a rich field.

And the playwright undergirds his thematic content with historic information that he frames poetically. When Akira was twelve years old, he traveled through Hiroshima by train shortly after that city had been flattened by an atomic bomb. The image of cataclysmic fire echoes throughout the script and its generations. In the most resonant echo, Shigematsu’s young daughter Mika writes a short story for school: it’s about how a family spends its last night on earth when they realize the globe is being scorched by solar flares.

The storytelling in Empire of the Son unfolds in a series of associative anecdotes.

For me, most of those anecdotes didn’t land this time around.

Partly, of course, that’s because this is my third time seeing this play performed by this man. My familiarity with the material can’t be discounted.

But there are other factors.

When I saw Empire of the Son in 2016, Akira had died relatively recently so, when Shigematsu told us that, in performing his play, he was rehearsing having public feelings so that he would be able to cry at his dad’s funeral, it felt like there was lived weight to it. In my perception at least, he was genuinely vulnerable.

Since then, Shigematsu has toured Empire of the Son internationally for almost a decade. So there’s less urgency in his lived reality and, understandably, less freshness in his delivery.

And I don’t think the show is as well produced this time. In its premiere, Empire of the Son was directed by Richard Wolfe and performed on a set by Pam Johnson. In an exquisite touch, the storytelling relied on a series of miniatures.

Johnson’s set featured a long bench on which small objects were displayed. And, on the back of the bench, there was a video camera on a track so, when he was telling a particular story, Shigematsu could turn the camera onto the assigned “set” and act it out somehow. We’d see the projected results.

In the story of the solar flares, for instance, the girl and her family decide to go skating on Grouse Mountain one last time. There was a little mirror covered in fake snow. Shigematsu cleared this mirrored “rink”making snowbanks, then skated on the shiny surface using two fingers.

This time, in director Kaitlin Williamson’s production, we get none of that. And nothing memorable — or original — replaces it.

The uncredited set features suspended origami cranes. During a story about a third conflagration, lighting designer Jonathan Kim throws flickering orange onto the paper birds. The effect is okay, but that’s all it is. It’s familiar.

And, without poetic, enlivening theatricality, the story of Shigematsu’s relationship with is dad gets repetitive: “My dad was uptight. As a result, so am I.”

There’s still charm in Shigematsu’s performance. The night I saw him in this iteration, he remained buoyant, sometimes playful. But, to me, it feels like the show’s soul is missing.

You could very reasonably argue, of course, that it’s brutal to compare this production to an earlier version. But that earlier version remains part of my experience and, as a critic, my experience, in one form or another, is what I have to go on.

EMPIRE OF THE SON by Tetsuro Shegematsu. Directed by Kaitlin Williams. On Saturday, September 31. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre until October 21. Tickets

NEVER MISS A REVIEW: Sign up for FRESH SHEET, my weekly e-letter about the arts.

And, if you want to help to keep independent arts criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!