Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being” is “a contemplation of war, grief, despair and time, artfully folded like an elegant piece of origami into a wry and hopeful comedy laced with Zen Buddhist wisdom.”
“Nothing ever exists entirely alone. Everything is in relation to everything else.”
So said the Buddha. And in her novel “A Tale for the Time Being,” author Ruth Ozeki expands that insight into a time-bending saga that traces intricate, surprising connections between beings who are an ocean, a culture and years apart.
Ozeki’s eventful and far-reaching story, a contemplation of war, grief, despair and time, is artfully folded like an elegant piece of origami into a wry and hopeful seriocomedy laced with Zen Buddhist wisdom.
‘A Tale for the Time Being’
by Ruth Ozeki, adapted by Laura Ferri. Through Oct. 9, Center House Theatre (Seattle Center), 305 Harrison St.; $25-$40 (206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
It is conveyed in multiple voices, time zones and continents, over 400 pages. Yet Book-It Repertory Theatre, characteristically, is undaunted by the geographical and metaphysical reach of “A Tale for the Time Being.” And with care and alacrity, adapter Laura Ferri and director Desdemona Chiang have translated Ozeki’s elliptical opus into a consistently intriguing play.
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Catherine Cornell’s spare, flexible set composed mainly of shoji (Japanese sliding doors) and mobile platforms, and Tristan Roberson’s attentive lighting, frame the two-stranded narrative that adds another strand in the second half.
On the rugged coast of British Columbia, the professional author Ruth (Mariko Kita) is trying to complete a memoir about her late mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, but she has hit a block.
Memories are coming, but not words on the page. Then one day her naturalist husband (a delightfully bemused Michael Patten) finds, washed ashore, a proverbial message in a bottle — actually, in a plastic-wrapped Hello Kitty lunchbox that contains two diaries and several mysteries.
Ruth quickly immerses herself in the journal of a teenager in Japan named Nao (a note-perfect, beguiling turn by young Mi Kang). Addressed to the “time being” who finds it, the engrossing diary is an unflappable, humorous and poignant account of her daily life at the turn of the millennium.
Nao is a Silicon Valley-born kid, brined in irony and unhappily transplanted to Tokyo after her computer-programmer father (played affectingly by Scott Koh) loses his tech job and moves the family back to his native Japan. Nao describes her cultural alienation, the violent bullying she endures from vicious schoolmates and her broken father’s suicidal depression — all with an “oh-whatever” shrug that can’t mask her pain.
Packed off to a Zen monastery to visit her great-grandmother, a warm and sagacious nun (affectionately enacted by the laudable Khanh Doan), Nao gains new perspective on her travails. And inspired by the journal of an ancestor who was a kamikaze pilot in World War II, she recasts herself as spiritual samurai — a superhero, saving her own life.
There’s much more to the saga. And in Chiang’s dexterous staging, Book-It’s “A Tale for the Time Being” oscillates with ease between Nao’s adventures and discoveries and Ruth’s attempts to learn more about the girl behind the diary. Is Nao still alive? Did she perish in the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami? What were the fates of her troubled father, and her kamikaze kin?
It’s hard to ignore that Nao’s side of the story is simply more of a dramatic stimulant here than Ruth’s largely inward journey, and Kita’s flattened portrayal of Ruth underscores that imbalance. It needs more levels and colors to make the writer’s frustrations and breakthroughs, and her particular marriage, more compelling in their own right.
Fortunately the attributes of “Time Being” help compensate for that shortcoming. In the end, one of the overriding themes of Ozeki’s richly variegated tale is its tribute to the symbiotic and synergistic affinity between reader and writer. And it still shines through.
What a fitting theme for Book-It that is. In its respect for and fidelity to the authorial voice, the company celebrates that relationship in every show it devises.