Empire of the Son shines with a meditative, graceful exploration of father-son relationship
Former CBC host Tetsuro Shigematsu’s stylish solo show at PTE takes a deep look at complicated relationship
When it comes to our relationships with our parents, I suspect many of us check off the "it's complicated" box.
Certainly Tetsuro Shigematsu would in describing his relationship with his late father, Akira — a relationship his acclaimed 2015 solo show Empire of the Son aims to unpack.
Making its Winnipeg debut as the first show in Prairie Theatre Exchange's new Leap Series — focused on smaller, intimate and more experimental work — Empire is a meditative and thoughtful look at the often fraught parent-child relationship.
Akira Shigematsu was a public broadcaster — working first for the BBC, and later for the CBC's shortwave radio service.
Ironically for a man whose career involved talking to strangers across the world, he comes across here as stiff, formal and taciturn outside the radio studio — including with Tetsuro, who maintains he never had a proper conversation with his father until he began conducting interviews with him near the end of Akira's life.
That seems a natural fit for Tetsuro, who would follow his father into public broadcasting — CBC Radio One listeners will likely remember him as the host of the national afternoon show The Roundup.
Here, he draws on those interviews he conducted with his dad — sometimes even playing clips from them — to give us the highlights of his father's life.
It's one highlighted by remarkable moments — Akira had tea with the Queen, was in the room with Marilyn Monroe serenaded JFK, and was in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped.
Also remarkable — though more quietly so — are his attempts to be a good father to Tetsuro, misguided as they may sometimes be (including an attempt to send a young Tetsuro on a character-building mission to one of three cities of his choosing — Kolkata, the Bronx in New York City, or Winnipeg).
As he presents us with fragments from Akira's life, it seems we join Tetsuro on a shared mission — gradually piecing together who Akira Shigematsu was as a man.
It's a story told here with stylish flair, too. Shigematsu is a talented writer, and the monologue has an often poetic quality.
He also employs a unique blend of puppetry and video storytelling — using a camera onstage to film close-up images of miniatures which are then projected, taking us to the bombing of Hiroshima, for example, or into Shigematsu's childhood home. The cinematic images created are often strikingly beautiful.
As a storyteller, Shigematsu has an unvarnished and amiable style, and he offers plenty of laughs here to lighten what could quickly become a sombre piece.
It's not explosive theatre, and the theme of exploring the child-parent relationship, while certainly relatable, is familiar territory.
But Shigematsu covers it with unflinching honesty, grace and an effective and affecting blend of style and substance.