Baseball becomes metaphor in Toshiki Okada’s FringeArts show

While its reputation as America’s pastime is still intact, baseball has burrowed its way deeply into the cultures of Japan and South Korea. So much so, says playwright and director Toshiki Okada, that in his native Japan, “we sometimes don’t think about the United States when we think about baseball. I think that kind of proves how much America has penetrated into our two countries’ culture and society.”

Okada, founder of the Japanese theater company chelfitsch, likens the relationship between America, Japan, and South Korea to “a father and two sons.” He explores that dynamic in his new play, “God Bless Baseball,” which arrives at FringeArts this weekend for its Philadelphia premiere. The director’s idiosyncratic work, which combines exaggerated physical gestures and hyper-colloquial language, is becoming a regular highlight of FringeArts’ programming; the organization has previously presented his triptych “Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech” as well as “Zero Cost House,” his collaboration with Pig Iron Theatre Company.

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“God Bless Baseball” is performed by two Japanese actors playing Korean roles and two Korean actors playing Japanese roles, both in their native tongues (and all with English supertitles for their Stateside tour). The show examines the contentious and complicated issues faced by the two countries, played out on a baseball diamond. “I was thinking about how to make an international collaboration between Japan and South Korea,” Okada explains, “and I thought the idea of baseball might be good to describe our two countries’ relationship.”

The miscommunications and tensions between the two Asian cultures are played out through a baseball lesson given to two women by a pair of men: One of whom can’t stand the game, the other a worshipful fan laboring under the delusion that he’s actually Major Leaguer Ichiro Suzuki.

Mistakes and all

Challenges came not only from the actors’ unfamiliarity with Okada’s working methods – it was the first time working with the singular director for all four actors – but from the fact that most of them had almost no knowledge of the rules of the sport.

“Whenever I work as a theater director, I have a kind of obsession with putting interesting movement on the stage,” Okada says. “Three of the four don’t know almost anything about baseball, so I liked seeing how they tried to imitate how to play baseball – of course, in the wrong way. I know baseball, but I didn’t tell them anything, I didn’t make their wrong way of playing baseball correct – as you will be able to see.”

If you go:

“God Bless Baseball”
Jan. 21-23, 8 p.m.
140 N. Columbus Blvd.
$29, 215-413-1318

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