There is a lot of very exciting theater happening Off-Broadway world these days. On some levels, it’s reminiscent of the theater of the late 1960s and 1970s when theater artists challenged conventional forms and narrative structures as a means both of criticizing commercial theater and finding new ways to challenge and engage audiences. Whereas the early plays were often political, current pieces are finding new ways to explore personal topics. What both have in common is a reflection of their respective times — and a commitment to using live theater in ways that cannot be replicated in other media. Earlier this year, we had “Circle Jerk,” which began online before transferring to a new stage, and currently, “Mister Miss America” is an insightful and heartfelt piece playing at Rattlestick.
“The Nosebleed,” written and directed by Aya Ogawa and currently running at Lincoln Center as part of their New Artists/New Audiences program, is theatrical, beautifully crafted, and quite moving. Though the titular nosebleed makes only the briefest, though graphic, appearance, the metaphor hangs over the entire play, reflecting something that sometimes seems to come out of nowhere and is momentarily terrifying but survivable. And, perhaps it is even less dire than it looks —though one may never know how it happened.
The subject of the piece is failure. Ogawa tells the story of her strained relationship with her father, which she says was her biggest failure. Taking the stage to introduce the play, Ogawa says, “One of the biggest failures of my life is that when my father died almost 15 years ago, I failed to do anything to honor him or his life because of the nature of our relationship.” The play is a quest for, if not resolution, at least healing and the process of grief.
In addition to Ogawa, there are four actors who also portray Aya, and their interplay provides the lyrical underpinning of the play. The differing voices, ethnicities, and gender identities of the actors effectively convey the complexity of Aya and her own identities — as a daughter, mother, Japanese American. It is funny, poignant, and always relatable.
At times, the company engages the audience, who is asked to show by raising hands such questions as whether one loves or hates their father, if their father is living, and has anyone cleaned out a parent’s home after that parent dies. The immediate effect of this is to create a personal connection to the action and, in a very meta way, making the audience aware of what personal narratives they bring to the experience of this play.
Interspersed with Aya’s journey are recreations of scenes from the reality show “The Bachelorette.” Aya says she’s obsessed with it. Funny as they are, the scenes also bite as we see the debased superficiality that passes for relationships as promoted in popular culture.
The company is strong and wonderfully at home with the material. The four Ayas — Drae Campbell, Ashil Lee, Saori Tsukada, and Kaili Y. Turner — work fluidly together, as both Ayas and actresses. At the beginning of the piece, each comes out and introduces themselves as people separate from the event, adding to the multi-layered reality of the piece.
The sets and costumes by Jian Jung are understated and effective, and there is some very clever design that reflects Aya’s opening up to her grief.
Ultimately, Aya finds an ending — if not a complete resolution — for herself in ritual. Well, in two rituals. There is the ritual of the theater as a vehicle for exploration and catharsis and a ritual that takes place in the context of the play. If you’re not quite sure how it happens, well, that’s like that metaphoric nosebleed, and Ogawa takes us deeply and poetically into an exploration of our relationships with our fathers with freshness, honesty, and originality.
The Nosebleed | Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center | 150 West 65th Street | Sun, Mon, Weds-Sat 7 p.m.; Sat, Sun 2 p.m. through August 28 | $30 |Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 70 mins, no intermission