The Nosebleed
Kaili Y. Turner, Saori Tsukada, Ashil Lee, Aya Ogawa, and Drae Campbell in The Nosebleed at Woolly Mammoth; Credit: DJ Corey Photography

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In writer-director Aya Ogawa’s The Nosebleed, Aya Ogawa and four other actors play Aya Ogawa in an autobiographical exploration of grief, parenthood, and failure, complete with a heap of The Bachelorette and a dash of audience participation. If it sounds like a dizzying premise, don’t worry: It’s also a delight, and it’s now running at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

When you open the program, you’ll notice five actors designated to play Ayas 0-4. Ogawa herself, aka Aya 0, starts as a sort of emcee before quickly giving way to the five performers making up her avatars: Ashil Lee, Kaili Y. Turner, Saori Tsukada, and Drae Campbell, in numerical order. After a brief meditation on real-life failures (contributions from the audience welcome), the Ayas break into a collage of scenes reflecting on Ogawa’s relationship with her frigid father and her efforts to do better for her own children. Ogawa plays both son and father, the former stricken by the titular nosebleed, the latter by a debilitating stroke. Ayas 1–4, meanwhile, cycle through various iterations of Aya, her mother, a would-be couple on a season of The Bachelorette, and the rest of the people who populate Aya’s life—save for a suitably cringeworthy cameo from a man credited only as “White Guy” (Cody Nickell). As the Ayas dance back and forth through Ogawa’s life, the specter of her father’s death looms large, forcing her disparate selves to try and make sense of their stunted relationship.

It’s a credit to Ogawa’s craft and the expertise of a marvelous cast that the many shifts in character, time, space, and theatrical frame are rarely disorienting. Each of the non-Ogawa performers lends a different shade to Aya: Lee a useful enthusiasm, Turner a poise, Tsukada a charm, Campbell a chill. Yet each one also embraces the chance to play chameleon, whether by prancing around in a knowing Bachelorette spoof or taking on the “toad-like” qualities of a mortuary employee. Ogawa, meanwhile, invokes her son’s terror at his gushing nose, her younger father’s cool disinterest in her personhood, and her elder father’s creeping dismay as his body decays with brutal simplicity. They all flourish under Ogawa’s direction, which employs simple but elegant stage pictures to mark the occasional flash of continuity amidst the maelstrom. Even the silly Bachelorette sequence loops back into the mix with newfound gravity thanks to a careful balance of repetition and variation. It’s all backed by an understated visual aesthetic composed of a bare back wall, assorted clutter, some chairs, simple dress, and sparse but effective lighting flourishes.

At a moment when greater attention is (rightfully) being paid to casting with respect to which actors should embody which lived experiences, Ogawa deserves credit for playing with the fractiousness of identity while still reckoning with people as they are. The cast is diverse in race and played by women and trans and non-binary actors, a fact that immediately unsettles any attempt to capture Aya in a snapshot—suitable for a woman who was born in Japan and raised in Brooklyn, works in two languages, and is resistant to a racializing gaze that seemingly cannot accept hybridity. It also complicates her efforts to make sense of the father who all but abandoned her. As the Ayas observe, a father marks his daughter’s future relationships with men for good or for ill, and many people fear passing their parents’ deficiencies onto their own children. Despite the title, it is her father that casts a long shadow over the play, not her son’s nosebleed and Ogawa’s evidently futile efforts to cure it. As the show’s meditation on failure suggests, it’s hard to make sense of one’s own self in such conditions, never mind get it right for someone else.

Still, finding some closure, even if such closure is only really available in a theater, suggests that anyone, no matter who they are, should share in the freedom to fail, to recover, and to deal with life as it is. In breaking herself into pieces, Ogawa invites others, including the audience, to join her in putting the pieces back together—or, in some cases, letting the pieces go. If you catch The Nosebleed at Woolly Mammoth, bring a little piece with you, and make sure to snag a piece of paper and a pencil on your way in. You’ll need that paper, and maybe a tissue, too.

The Nosebleed, written and directed by Aya Ogawa, plays through April 23 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. $20–$83.