Suicide Forest

A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre, Manhattan

Five things to love about this weird exploration of Japanese culture!

By Andrew Andrews

Haruna Lee, Dawn Akemi Saito and Ako in Yi-Ma Theater Company’s production of Lee’s Suicide Forest at ART/NY’s Mezzanine Theatre. Original production photos by Richard Termine.

In late 90’s Tokyo—represented by a tacky Victorian love hotel—an aging salary man fantasizes about his secretary and scolds his daughters for demanding their allowance, then molests a life-sized doll named Azusa that they’ve left behind in his office.

When he leaves, Azusa comes to life, haunted by the spirit of a dancing woman named Mad Mad who is rumored to live in the forest at the base of the national mountain.

As the salary man and his boss struggle to stay relevant in society, he repeatedly crosses paths with Azusa, who struggles with her own identity and the expectations of society as well.

Like a Japanese version of Twin Peaks, Suicide Forest is sometimes funny and sometimes disturbing as it expresses the playwright’s mommy issues and cultural and sexual identity crisis through fantasy performance.

And when it’s done being really weird, it gets really real in a “break through the fourth wall” kinda way—only to get weird again for the finale.

Of course, the more you relish bizarre theatre, the more you’ll enjoy this production… but the outlandish themes aren’t the only thing to like about it:

Eddy Toru Ohno and Keizo Kaji.
  1. Costumes: From the Princess Lolita outfits worn by the salary man’s daughters, to the goat costumes in the forest and even the everyday wear, the costume design is perfect. Even though three of the actors perform multiple roles, the clothing was sufficiently distinct to avoid any confusion.
  2. Scenery: Although the same set is used for multiple scenes, its whimsical appearance lends an abstract background to the action. And when the walls are finally moved for Chapter 2, the forest looks like a collaboration between Senga Nengudi and Yayoi Kusama.
  3. Tech: The sound, lighting, smoke machines and even the air conditioning are expertly synchronized to the scene, especially invoking the atmosphere of the forest.
  4. Clichés: The script seems to employ every archetype and stereotype about Japanese culture from a critical perspective, condemning conformity and hypersexualization in particular.
  5. Portrayals: Especially considering the absurdity of the roles and the critical intent, the actors are well-cast and play their parts to perfection.

It’s only fair to mention that this production isn’t flawless: the playwright’s interruption of the fantasy to psychoanalyze the relationship with their mother and their shared background feels like a comedian explaining a joke before delivering the punchline.

As for comfort: despite some wasted space, the seats in ART/New York’s Mezzanine Theatre can be a little crowded, depending on who’s next to you. And avoid sitting in the second row, as it’s the only one not raised above the row before it, which can lead to an obstructed view of some critical moments in the show.

If you’ve spent any time in Japan or have Japanese ancestry, you’ll probably appreciate the social commentary here more than the average attendee… but anyone who enjoys experimental theatre will surely admire the originality and expressionism of Suicide Forest.

Andrew Andrews attended Suicide Forest at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre in Manhattan on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 @ 8:00pm to write this review.