‘Hot Pepper’: Downsized Dance by Chelfitsch

Photo: Toru Yokota

Anyone who’s ever worked in a cubicle will recognize the fluorescent-cool pecking order of corporate culture in Chelfitsch’s Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and The Fairwell Speech.  The Japanese company opened its dance theater piece which runs through Sunday at LATC as part of the RADAR L.A. festival.

It’s lunchtime and three temp workers listlessly shuffle into a lifeless break room.  Stage right is a sleek, red-topped aluminum table with four black chairs from what could be the Ikea “Soulless Ürban Office Collection.” Lighting designer Tommomi Ohira’s cool white glare glows from behind a sculptural wall that’s reminiscent of an empty art gallery. As the trio sits, the male begins flipping through a magazine, Hot Pepper, with the enthusiasm of an undertaker. One chair sits empty and we soon learn why.

One of their comrades Erika, another temp, has been laid off and it’s time to plan the obligatory going-away party. Our slack-shouldered guy jumps up with an idea for where to eat.  Moving center stage he begins gyrating as he speaks.  Angular, minimalist piano music echoes his odd, jerky dance of the dangling limbs.  The women sit at the table, silent, unfazed by this exorcism of the mundane.

The effect is strangely hypnotic. Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and The Fairwell Speech unfolds as a three-part meditation on death, class, and listening for the sad poetry in the everyday. The language has a repetitive structure reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, though the roundabouts carry you a little farther in director-playwright Toshiki Okada’s script.  Rather than words or phrases, we circle around ideas as if there were no escaping the routine of the corporate structure: an office worker who obsesses over the criminal setting of the air conditioner (‘Everyday I come in and the air conditioner is set for 23 degrees. Why would someone set it at 23 degrees? Everyday,’ etc), or that perennial favorite, played out by groups everywhere: Where should we eat?

You recognize in the language (even with the English supertitles of the Japanese) the rhythms of everyday speech. It’s language so plain, so casual that it normally sneaks by unnoticed. It’s water cooler chat.  You wouldn’t think it stage-worthy but … you’re mesmerized. It’s Okada’s choreography that elevates these dismissible words. By creating a jarring juxtaposition between the physical score and the text, the forgettable is remembered, small details speak volumes. The office pecking order is captured by the synchronized dismissive swinging of feet; the sexual interoffice tension is captured by the repeated stroking of a pink-silk tie; disdain for a co-worker is captured in the rhythmic slice of a fan.

This is not a world of passion and tears (at least not publicly). It’s a muted office tragedy of a temp worker laid off, or to use the play’s euphemism “graduating from our company”, and workers realizing how tenuous their own station is, after all “Erika seemed really good at Excel and stuff.” The success of the piece depends on how you choose to engage it. If you are looking for emotional fireworks you’ll leave wanting. If you’re willing to dig below the surface and embrace the physical and verbal metaphors it has a resonance all too familiar these days.

Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and The Fairwell Speech, RADAR L.A., 6/17-6/19.


Anthony Byrnes

Anthony Byrnes has worn many hats in LA theatre (from teacher to producer to theater builder) but being theatre critic for KCRW is the first one that comes with good seats. You can hear his work at kcrw.com/theatre. @theaterthoughts

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