Empire of the Son is gorgeous storytelling, wrapped inside an equally gorgeous production.
Having just recently lost his father after a long illness, Tetsuro Shigematsu lays bare his relationship with the man in this solo family biography. But while Empire of the Son is at times excruciatingly personal, it is in the recognition of our own relationships with our parents that rings through. We feel the pain of indifference, the need for approval, the dynamics between siblings, and the ultimate realization that we really only have a short time together. This isn’t just Shigematsu’s story, it is our story as well.
At the top of the show, Shigematsu sees one of his primary goals in Empire of the Sun is to be able to cry at his father’s funeral, something he has not been able to do as an adult. And even as he didn’t quite reach that goal in performance, at least on Wednesday night, there is little doubt that he is prepared for what is about to come. And thanks to his fearlessness in exposing his own life (and heart) to the rest of us, perhaps it too will help make our own grieving easier when the time comes.
But before you think that it is all takes on a singular sombre tone, there is much lightness among the dark as Shigematsu interjects a great deal of humour among the sadness.
There is also a sense of whimsy created with the help of a camera and some miniatures. As he tells the story of his family’s tradition of taking baths together when they are young, we see a tiny diorama of a bathroom projected behind him. As he talks of the bombing of Hiroshima, which his father was present for, Shigematsu creates a tiny atomic explosion inside a water-filled glass case. These are a beautiful menagerie of distant memories, made larger-than-life by the stories that grew out of them.
Combined with Pam Johnson’s Japanese-inspired set that explodes at the top, and Gerald King’s simple but effective lighting, it is all becomes a gorgeous backdrop to underscore Shigematsu’s equally gorgeous storytelling.
Empire of the Son by Tetsuro Shigematsu. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production, presented by The Cultch. Playing at The Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until October 24. Visit https://thecultch.com for tickets and information.