Review | ‘The Nosebleed’ turns playwright’s introspection into communal catharsis

Contemplation flows freely in “The Nosebleed,” a stirring exercise in interactive theater that uses playwright-director Aya Ogawa’s autobiographical introspection as a gateway to communal catharsis. The audience’s involvement in the soul-searching to come is telegraphed when patrons pass through the Woolly Mammoth Theatre doors and are handed, along with a playbill, notebook paper and a pencil.

But rest assured — “The Nosebleed,” which was staged at New York’s Japan Society in 2021 and the Lincoln Center Theater last year, feels nothing like homework. As Ogawa says in an opening address, the play began as an “exploration of failure” before morphing into something more personal: a way to honor her father in a way she had neglected to after his 2007 death. But this cleverly conceived production functions as more of a group-therapy session, presented through the lens of Ogawa’s specific experience, than anything self-serving.

Ogawa transforms Woolly’s intimate, brightly lit theater into a shared storytelling space after her speech, when she passes the baton to the four lead actors: Ashil Lee, Kaili Y. Turner, Saori Tsukada and Drae Campbell, each of whom recounts their own tales of failure before opening the floor to the audience. (At Wednesday’s performance, Lee self-effacingly recalled damaging their eardrum with a cotton swab. Turner, meanwhile, riotously remembered a mid-show underwear mishap.) From there, the intermittent audience participation — including a potent thought exercise with the pencil and paper — is optional but, for those who take part, emotionally stimulating.

In Ogawa’s darkly comic story, presented via nonlinear vignettes, generational trauma looms large as she plays both her young son (he of the titular bloody nose) and her father. Ogawa doesn’t portray herself, however — that task is left to the aforementioned foursome, who inhabit the playwright in all her multitudes. Along the way, the play re-creates uncomfortable interactions with her steely father, a Japanese immigrant who settled his family in Northern California, rarely dispersed affection, and died two years after a stroke impaired his physical and cognitive abilities.

Jian Jung’s sparse set, depicting the scattered belongings Ogawa’s father left behind, effectively gestures toward his idiosyncrasies. “The Nosebleed” also unpacks the granular oddities of settling an estate, as well as Ogawa’s belated guilt — prompted by a 2017 trip to Japan, questions of cultural identity and, oddly enough, “The Bachelorette.” Each actor playing Ogawa (plus various side characters) brings distinct energy: Lee exudes endearing enthusiasm, Turner approaches the part with palpable pluck, Tsukada carries the weightiest scenes (and also memorably plays a toad-like mortician), and Campbell makes for a sly source of comic relief.

To fully engage with “The Nosebleed” is to wrestle with the messy truths of losing a parent, and the questions they leave forever unanswered. Even if some experimental swings briefly confound, the audacity of the innovation impresses all the same. As the play points out, Ogawa never published an obituary for her father. Now, Akira Ogawa’s life is commemorated onstage seven times a week. If “The Nosebleed” was designed to correct that oversight, then let it be said: This “exploration of failure” is a remarkable success.

The Nosebleed, written and directed by Aya Ogawa. Set and costumes, Jian Jung; lighting, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; sound, Megumi Katayama. With Cody Nickell. About 75 minutes. Through April 23 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW.

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