The Second World War housed some of the worst moments that humanity has ever experienced. Hitler’s Nazi regime was responsible for the death of over 11 million people. The United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And one lesser known monstrosity was created in the form of comfort women. Japan had invaded China in the early stages of the war and as part of their occupation, began capturing young women and keeping them as sex slaves or “comfort women” for their soldiers. This is what playwright Diana Tso and director William Yong attempt to capture through Comfort.
Inspired by the true stories of comfort survivors, the Red Snow Collective creative team, led by Tso and Yong, tell the story of two lovers from different worlds and how the war kept them apart.
Li Dan Feng (Vicki Kim) is the daughter of a rich silk tycoon, who is to marry into a wealthy Japanese family, in order to protect her family through the war. The only issue is, she has fallen in love with a poor fisherman named Zhou Ping Yang (Jeff Yung). In true Romeo and Juliet fashion, these lovers (or outlaw couple, as they like to call themselves) are kept apart from each other because of their social status, but that does not stop them from attempting to be together. What does stop them however, is the Japanese invasion of China.
The Red Snow Collective takes several necessary steps to ensure the message of this play is clear and creates a deep impact with the audience. The first of these steps is the careful construction of the narrative, which is broken into two acts. The first act is very exposition heavy. We get to meet our characters and develop an emotional connection to them. When the first act comes to a close, we get our inciting incident, as we see the early stages of the Japanese invasion.
We then move on to the second act, where our characters are at their lowest points. All seems lost, yet they try to hold on to the hope that the war will end and China will be free again. Without giving too much away, we begin to see their hopes answered as the second act comes to a close. But then that’s it. The play ends. We get a fast forward to their lives 60 years later, where the survivors are starting to speak out, but then the lights fade and the curtain call begins.
Essentially, Comfort completely removes the conclusion audiences may feel entitled to. And it works. Throughout the performance, we see history unfolding before our eyes. If we look at the lives of the women this play is inspired by, they are still in their third act today. They are fighting for their voices to be heard and fighting for justice.
Moving on from there, it’s important we look at the drastic difference between the two acts of the play. The first act is happy-go-lucky and, honestly, a little cheesy. The costumes are bright and colourful – a choice specifically made by director Yong – the acting is slightly exaggerated, and the set (which was also designed by Yong) is completely intact. This creates a beautiful juxtaposition with the second act, where all colour completely leaves the stage. The comfort women are dressed in various light grey tones and the Japanese soldiers are dressed in dark grey.
The mood becomes dark and sombre the moment Li Dan Feng is captured and brought into the comfort camp. The drastic change in tone gives the audience the same sense of vulnerability that the characters are experiencing. It almost acts as a punishment for those who enjoyed the quirkiness of the first act.
The performers certainly manage to show their range between these two acts, but what never changes is level of level of physicality that they bring to their characters. The choreography woven into the rape scenes is haunting. Every movement feels deliberate and precise, all leading to an incredibly uncomfortable audience. That being said, there are moments of true awe and beauty as well, especially from performer Oliver Koomsatira in his elegant portrayal of the Chinese water bird, Cormorant.
One of the most powerful aspects of the play however, is the music. Yong says he believed that a live performance, with the natural resonance of instruments in a theatre, would be more emotional and affect the audience on an entirely different level. He was right. The combination of Patty Chan’s erhu (Chinese violin), Cathy Nosaty’s accordion and Brandon Valdivia’s percussion breathes new life into the performance and brings the already tragic and beautiful piece of theatre to a level very few performances can reach.
This is not a performance you see on a whim, or for a fun Friday night. If you want to be moved or to have something to think about, then this is the show for you. It is dark and tragic, but beautiful and haunting all the same.
Comfort is playing at Native Earth Performing Arts’ Aki Studio until Dec. 10. For more information visit http://www.nativeearth.ca/aki-studio-theatre/