Naomi Iizuka’s new play, the self-reflexively titled Ghostwritten, dramatizes the emotional costs and consequences of America’s involvement in Vietnam. As the story moves vertiginously from its opening scenes in Vietnam to a large, contemporary Midwestern city, and then into the liminal space of a fairytale–ready backwoods, Iizuka demonstrates the lack of clear geographical boundaries in an increasingly interconnected political landscape. Using minimalist staging, the production worked on a number of levels: as psychological realism, as a self-conscious critique of storytelling, and as a contemporary version of the Grimms fairytale, Rumpelstiltskin. Ghostwritten slipped in and out of dramaturgical styles and genres, juxtaposing the fairytale with elliptical contemporary dialogue and an astute awareness of the source’s complicated sexual and familial undertones.
Ghostwritten derives a powerful premise from that source. During a backpacking trip in Southeast Asia, a young American college student named Susan (Kim Martin-Cotten) meets a mysterious, nameless stranger (Lisa Tejero) who offers to teach her how to make “magic food.” In exchange, Susan must give her her firstborn. Thinking she will never have children, Susan agrees to the proposal and learns recipes that in turn help her become a rich and successful chef. Along the way, she adopts a Vietnamese child, Bea (Tiffany Villarin). Twenty years later, the stranger returns to Susan’s life intending to claim Susan’s adopted child as her own. Iizuka gradually takes the mysteries of the fairytale and wraps them around contemporary politics, examining how war and, to a lesser extent, adoption, complicate neat geopolitical boundaries between countries, creating relationships and ties that continue long after such invasions and interventions are supposedly over.
Iizuka’s script situates its political critique underneath a layer of self-reflexivity. In the second act in particular, the playwright toys with the similarities between her own characters and those in the fairytale. Bea, who has theatrical aspirations, is cast as the “Princess” in what is presumably a community theatre production of Rumpelstiltskin, and acts opposite a fellow actor who may or may not be her husband in real life, a character known as both Chad and Not Chad (Dieterich Gray). As in [End Page 469] the Grimms fairytale, he identifies himself mostly as a woodsman. Likewise, Tejero plays her “Woman from Vietnam” realistically at first, before allowing her to mutate into a larger-than-life fairytale villain, complete with animalistic hissing and almost witchlike costumes. Iizuka blurs styles, requiring the audience to accept an evolving interplay between the characters’ original names/characteristics and their roles in the liminal space of the woods.
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Such transformations also invite the audience to consider the multiple levels of story telling in Iizuka’s play and in the characters’ own self-mythologizing. Susan’s own creation story as a self-made career woman is problematized repeatedly, initially by the presence of the woman who taught her how to cook, and then by her brother Martin’s (Dan Waller) reminders of their humble Midwestern roots. In Ghostwritten, Iizuka, whose previous work also draws from myth (Polaroid Stories) and grapples with questions of authenticity (36 Views), returns to some of her ongoing themes by questioning the truthfulness of the myths and stories that create one’s sense of personal identity.
In the play’s climax, Iizuka effectively ties up her well-made plot’s final revelation with her thematic interest in representation by having two characters tell a story about their own pasts. This scene serves as a satisfying conclusion to the psychologically realistic aspect of the play, as it uncovers two secrets that shed new light on the characters’ relationships. But the twist also serves as a reminder that the play itself is based on a story—a fairytale—and that ultimately, all the characters are left with are stories—some true, some false, some accepted, some buried. As the larger relevance of the twist comes into relief, Iizuka demonstrates our own country’s investment in the repression of politically uncomfortable transnational stories...