By BRUCE DENNILL
In Bocca Al Lupo / Directed by Jane Taylor / Ramalao Makhene Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
Jemma Kahn has created a fantastical one-woman niche as the leading (and perhaps only) exponent of kamishibai – a Japanese street theatre art form that involves quickfire narration of a long and complex story while displaying and replacing painted panels in a specially constructed box, like a medieval television.
In Bocca Al Lupo is the third – and, if the publicity material is to be believed, the last – of a trilogy of singular projects that began with The Epicene Butcher And Other Stories For Discerning Adults, which was a crazy mind-warp of comedy, surrealism and erotica, and continued with We Didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants: Seven Deadly New Stories for Consenting Adults, which somehow managed to up the ante, going deeper and getting grittier than its predecessor.
This piece winds everything down, bringing in much more of Kahn’s personal story (she first encountered and learned about kamishibai during a gap year-type experience in Japan) and – for the most part – replacing shock value with intimate, dramaticised memoir. If that sounds less enthralling than the burlesque mischief of the early productions, it’s not, primarily because Kahn is brutally honest, while also filtering her observations through a mesh of oil-black humour. There is also a section in which the erotica (though that’s perhaps too gentle a word for it) returns, and it does jolt audiences out of the moderately placid space they and the show are occupying at the time. But a few graphic panels and the accompanying slice of plot are not nearly as discomfiting as Kahn’s ability to drill into the core of a series of emotional issues that everyone suffers through at some point – loneliness, depression, damaged relationships and more – and deliver her discoveries directly to her audience via her paintings, acting and a number of cleverly devised sound and lighting cues.
From a theatrical and creative point of view, this series of shows coming to an end is sad – it’s been refreshing and inspiring both for its boldness and for the quality with which it’s been executed. That said, there’s a certain elegance to ending it with the relative restraint Kahn shows in this instance, and on a note that’s bittersweet and wistful, leaving the audience reflecting on what they’ve seen and learned, and on what else might have happened, or still be in the pipeline.