David Shih (left) is the dominant and domineering Mitsuo in "Sumo." Photo by Rich Soublet II
Admittedly if I were to draw up a list of things I’m not particularly interested in, sumo wrestling would be on it, along with the likes of Sanskrit, fry cooking and orthomolecular medicine.
But like any well-told yarn, playwright Lisa Sanaye Dring’s “Sumo” is a PEOPLE story. (I write that in capital letters because it’s that important not only to a successful play but to a film, a TV show, anything with a narrative component.) What begins as an education into a world little known to most, that of Japanese sumo wrestlers, becomes an immersive drama, sprinkled with moments of playfulness. You come to care and feel for “Sumo’s” protagonist, young Akio (Scott Keiji Takeda) who dreams of achieving the peak rank of Yokozuna, as well as others who reside in the Tokyo training “stable” where at the outset of the play his job is to sweep and clean.
In the same way, Dring builds empathy for the others in the stable by humanizing each character. They may be men of prodigious strength and girth, but they are also shown to be individuals with insecurities, anxieties, manufactured masculine superiority and sensitivities.
In partnership with New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company, La Jolla Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of Dring’s play, the 10th from its DNA Workshop to be produced on a mainstage in La Jolla. Ralph B. Pena, Ma-Yi Theater’s artistic director, directs an ensemble of 10, very ably assisted by among others the production’s fight director, Chelsea Pace, and cultural and martial arts consultant James Yaegashi.
My only experience with sumo wrestling being a brief sequence from the Bond film “You Only Live Twice,” which was filmed in Japan, I came into this production essentially without a clue. Counting on, apparently, most theatergoers being like myself, a goodly portion of “Sumo’s” first act is spent explaining both in action onstage and in utilizing Hana Kim’s projection design the hows, whys and wheretofores of the sport. I didn’t realize, for example, that the average sumo match between two wrestlers usually only lasts seconds.
Within the framework of this education in sumo is the introduction of Akio, who is eager to learn from the veterans around him, including the gruff and dismissive Mitsuo (David Shih), who has achieved the coveted distinction of being a Yokozuna and doesn’t want anyone to forget it.
While the more deliberate first act of “Sumo” is consumed with explaining the sport and its cultural roots, and establishing the various characters, Act Two brings several significant and even wrenching conflicts to the fore, including Akio’s betrayal of two fellow sumo trainees who are having a relationship. He also will ponder the price of trying to become what Mitsuo and the rarefied others like him have become.
These two developments, each in their own way, pack an emotional wallop. Yet the play’s turning points are neither preachy nor heavy-handed . One moment of reckoning for Akio, when he comes to terms with his past and present, is staged with the night’s most poignant and bursting use of color and technical effects.
This is a superior technical team overall, from Wilson Chin’s scenic design to Mariko Ohigashi’s costumes to the aforementioned Hana Kim. Setting the mood and propelling the pulse of the show from above is taiko drummer Shih-Wei Wu.
It should be noted that “Sumo” is not all navel gazing – as if these guys could see their navels. Demonstrating that even wrestlers cooped up together can bust loose and have fun, there’s a likably wacky karaoke scene. Somewhere the Spice Girls’ ears have to be burning.
“Sumo” runs through Oct. 22 in La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.