Of the four actors in acclaimed Japanese director and playwright Hideki Noda’s THE BEE, a play currently running at Japan Society as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, three of them have multiple roles, some almost simultaneously. But it is the one role of British actress Kathryn Hunter as Ido the salaryman that is most substantial.
The throaty voice of Hunter, an Olivier Award winner who played Ido when THE BEE premiered at London’s Soho Theatre in 2006, penetrates the auditorium from onstage, emphasizing her character’s transformation from ordinary salaryman into heartless criminal.
Set in 1974 Tokyo, THE BEE, written by Noda and Irish playwright Colin Teevan, begins with Ido discovering his wife and son have been taken hostage by Ogoro, a scorned killer on the loose. To exact revenge, Ido, in turn, takes Ogoro’s wife and son hostage, declaring, “I have no aptitude for being a victim.”
Another example of the play’s gender-bending casting, Noda himself plays Ogoro’s wife, a stripper who is bold yet dotes on her son. At first she won’t listen to Ido, but eventually decides she does have the aptitude for being a victim, acquiescing to his demands once the office worker-turned-outlaw brandishes a gun.
Being in charge of this situation suddenly gives Ido a sense of power. In a phone conversation between the two hostage takers arranged by the bumbling detective inspector Dodoyama, Ido surprises himself by telling Ogoro, “I’ll rape your wife and kill your son.” The threat invigorates Ido, freeing him from the societal ties of salaryman-ness. “I begin to feel that I am more in control than anytime previously in my life,” Ido says with aplomb.
Ido and Ogoro begin an exchange of gruesome deeds, which are diluted by subtlety and humor that soften the horror of rape and dismemberment – if such a thing could actually do that. Ido, Ogoro’s wife, and Ogoro’s son settle into a grotesque routine until the play’s end.
The spare set features a wall that reflects Ido and his hostages – as well as the audience – in front of it while revealing different members of the media and police behind it. The actors get a lot of mileage out of rubber bands and a roll of white drawing paper.
A fast-paced 75 minutes, THE BEE is intense and satisfying, despite the actions of the rookie criminal. Hunter’s portrayal of Ido alone is enough to see the play, but the quick character changes by the other actors – especially Glyn Pritchard, who goes from Ogoro to Anchoku to Ogoro’s son in a matter of minutes – are quite entertaining.