La Jolla Playhouse Opens Stunning Coming of Age Story ‘Sumo’
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, Oct. 2, 2023
“Art can be very beautiful when you’re reaching into the other with humility and compassion,” playwright Lisa Sanaye Dring shares in an in-program interview, noting the importance of intentionality in crafting a piece about Japanese men as an American woman. Her production, Sumo, is enjoying its world premiere on the Mandell Weiss Forum stage in a co-production by La Jolla Playhouse and Ma-Yi Theater Company.
The play tells the story of young Akio (Scott Keiji Takeda), a determined teenager who aches to make his mark on the sumo world. He enrolls as a rikishi at an elite stable in Tokyo, where he finds himself paying dues in the form of hard work and cleaning the heya rather than having the opportunity to train. Akio’s hot temper and frustration as well as his ambition are on full display as he interacts with his fellow trainees, including Shinta (Earl T. Kim), Fumio (Miller Tai), Ren (Adam Tran), So (Viet Vo), and the stable’s mightiest fighter, Mitsuo (David Shih). As Akio gets to know the brothers he is living with day in and out in the training facility, he becomes more and more conflicted about his own path and what he has to do to carve it out. The cast also includes Kris Bona, Michael Hisamoto, and Ryan Nebreja as kannushi (fourth-wall breaking storytellers) among other parts, and Shih-Wei Wu, the taiko drummer/composer who plays throughout the production from an elevated platform above the stage.
One of the beautiful things about Sumo is the intentionality with which it is crafted. Developed during the Playhouse’s 2021 DNA New Work Series, the show not only features a talented set of actors, but is showcased in a way that really helps bring the novel context to life for an audience new to the sport. The kannushi, a trio of Shinto shrine priests, begin by facilitating a rudimentary understanding of the setting, the culture in which the play takes place, the values of the sumo competitors within their heya, and the relative positionality of the various fighters in the stable. This facilitates a common background knowledge for everyone in the theatre, allowing everyone to access the production from a similar place, and therefore allowing them to also experience the stunning interplay of the technical components.
Scenic designer Wilson Chin has created a large, open space with wood grain walls that slide open and shut as needed for each scene. A midstage ring is used for an array of interactions under the creative direction of intimacy and fight director, Chelsea Pace, all of which are beautifully choreographed. The actors wear traditional costumes created by Mariko Ohigashi, with wigs by Albert “Albee” Alvarado. Other key consultants on the creative team include James Yaegashi, serving as cultural and martial arts consultant and Alice Tuan as dramaturg.
Of particular note are the breathtaking moving projections by Hana Kim, used liberally across the walls, floors, and even a ceiling-to-floor silk. It is worth coming to this production to experience the projections alone, as well as the way that lighting design (Paul Whitaker) and sound design (Fabian Obispo) make both those same projections and the events on stage come to life… though that would seemingly imply that the rest of the production is somehow lacking something, which is far from the truth. Rather, the artistry that has been added by the creative design team elevates the entire story while simultaneously standing alone in its stellar application.
The actors for the production do a brilliant job as well. Under the direction of Ma-Yi Producing Artistic Director Ralph B. Peña, the relationships between the young men become closer, farther, fraught with tension, connected, and broken. Each performer has a singular handle on his character, motivations, and physical movements, and this confidence enables the audience to lose themselves in the story, making a mid-show tournament moment (with back-of-house applause in the sound plot and stadium-esque swinging spotlights) that much more impactful.
It is always interesting to learn about a culture with which you are unfamiliar through the vehicle of theatre. It is another yet to be immersed in it. Both are possible, in the hands of this production team and cast, making a trip to the Playhouse an opportunity not only for entertainment, but also for international and cultural travel.
Sumo runs through October 22 at the La Jolla Playhouse.