Flimflam phantasm: Vitalist Theatre’s ‘The Ghost is Here’ is haunting, but hesitant

Death is a scary thing, and scary things make us vulnerable. And as any salesperson will attest, a vulnerable person is the ideal customer. Just look at the funeral home business model: “What type of tribute do you want? Basic Package A, Super Package B, Delux Package C or Platinum Package D? Keep in mind, this is your one time to honor your loved one’s life.”

Guilt overcomes, and you’ve suddenly spent a fortune on a party for a body. Thank goodness for life insurance (ha). To me, it’s a racket. I’ve told people when I die, I want to be cremated with a simple party in someone’s home. That’s it.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about this curious play I saw called The Ghost is Here. Written in 1957 by Japanese playwright Kōbō Abe (translated by Donald Keene) and receiving its U.S. premiere at DCA’s Storefront Theatre presented by Vitalist Theatre, it’s a highly stylized, nearly farcical look at how modern society capitalizes on the fear of the unknown (read: death).

Set in a post-World War II Japan, The Ghost is Here follows Oba Sankichi (Jamie Vann), a dyed-in-the-wool flimflam artist who’s always on the lookout for the quickest way to earn a yen. When he meets Fukagawa (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), a haunted young man who sees and speaks to dead people, his newest scheme is hatched: Desperate villagers will sell him photos of their dead loved ones, and when seller’s remorse sets in, Oba charges them exorbitant amounts for them to buy their photos back. Fukagawa’s spiritual connection not only gives Oba credibility, but helps drive up the guilt tax.

It’s a sure-fire scheme that gains momentum, spreading into merchandise (“Ghost Cloths!”), speaking engagements and arranged marriages. But when your entire business model is founded on guilt, fear and air, it’s destined to come crashing down. Right? Think again.

Jaclynn Jutting directs this challenging piece with fluidity and style, but hasn’t settled on a tonal focus. As a result, the refreshingly diverse cast seems uncomfortable with the nearly Brechtian text and intermittent musical passages (Kevin O’Donnell has set Abe’s lyrics to some hauntingly simple tunes). A sense of hesitancy overshadows most of the evening, particularly during scenes where the money men frantically plot to keep the ghost alive and their pocketbooks full. Maybe after a few performances the show will find its footing and the satire will sting (and sing) as it should.

Also, by the end of the play’s 2.5 hours, Abe has made his point many times over. It moves from insightful to sigh-ful very quickly. We know where it’s going well before it gets there, and a last minute revelation is welcome but predictable. But with Craig Choma’s novel and multi-functional set design, Lee Fiskness’s evocative lighting work Rachel M Sypniewski’s thoughtful costuming, it sure is pretty to look at.

“The Ghost is Here” plays through February 19 at DCA’s Storefront Theatre. More info here >

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