Forest of Truth breaks gender stereotypes in a whimsical way

The Japanese GUMBO Theatre Group share about their satire performance

A Japanese person in Kabuki-style pale white foundation with exaggerated black and red makeup, hair up in a bow with chopsticks and flowers adorning their hair, holding a red apple. They are behind a green, comic-book style background with an exaggerated facial expression, white gloves, and a fairytale-style blue dress.
PHOTO: Courtesy of GUMBO Theatre Group

By: Tam Nguyen, SFU Student

Vancouver Fringe Festival is the biggest theatre festival in BC, held annually every September on Granville Island. Fringe 2023 wrapped up with over 85 independent artists and performers from across the world, cherishing all kinds of genres, from comedy and theatre, to drag and musical shows.

As a volunteer, one thing I loved about Fringe was how powerful word of mouth is. Every time we gathered at the volunteer centre, people would discuss and recommend the plays they liked; Forest of Truth was undoubtedly the most popular, and always in-demand for tickets.

Forest of Truth by GUMBO Theatre Group is a performance play about a man and woman who step into a magical forest and fall in love with each other. Because of stereotypical gender roles and the pressure to fit in with Japanese society, they both pretend to be someone they aren’t. But the residents of the forest help them overcome this, eventually revealing the hidden parts of the couple’s hearts and minds. The play deals with the heavy topic of gender roles in a refreshingly hilarious way.

I had a great time, and enjoyed all the comedic and whimsical elements of the production. Everything was so fresh and upbeat, from the magical forest set, to the performers’ costumes and makeup. The way they held themselves and interacted with the audience was captivating. At the award night showcase, I reached out to Ryo Nishihara (leading role) and Nono Miyasaka (supporting role) to set up an interview.

Nishihara explained how Forest of Truth tackles the question of “what is true self?” after gender stereotypes are removed. In Japan, women are stereotyped as “very shy,” and are expected to hide their true selves in favour of being polite and agreeable. Men are expected to be strong and masculine. They used a fairytale setting to subvert the tropes of “heroine meets prince charming,” followed by “a happy ever after.” 

Based in Osaka, Japan, GUMBO performs original works globally. Nishihara and Miyasaka explained the play is a combination of western storytelling and traditional Japanese theatre techniques, such as Kabuki dance movements and emotional expression, as well as makeup looks and costumes. They wanted the play to be contemporary and modern, but still represent Japanese culture. Kabuki is a Japanese theatrical form that’s existed for four centuries, defined by a blend of song, dance staging, costuming, and mime. I recalled Miyasaka, who portrayed a guard in the forest — he performed a wonderful Kabuki dance, dressed up as a Samurai.

About the process of creating the play, Nishihara named the writer-director of the play, Kayo Tamura, who supervised the performance from beginning to end. They rehearsed the play many times for a small audience to see which concepts worked, changing and updating the script frequently.

Miyasaka spoke about the challenges they faced promoting the play: “It was our first time at Vancouver Fringe, so we had no idea how to get an audience,” she said. “We tried to make posters and flyers, but we think it’s very difficult.” The play ended up speaking for itself. I was lucky to get a ticket at the very last minute.

Forest of Truth won The Spirit of the Fringe Award, which best reflects the Fringe core value, Theatre for Everyone.” Executive director Duncan Watts-Grant shared: Theatre Group GUMBO absolutely is the Spirit of the Fringe. They support other artists and care so much about this community we create together. Vancouver Fringe is thrilled to recognize the incredible attitude and joy they brought to the festival this year.”

Find out more about GUMBO Theatre Group at their website and follow them on Instagram, @gumbosteptheatreco.

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