Empire of the Son filled with hilarity and heartbreak

"Seventy-two per cent. That's how much water is in your body. And that water has been around here on earth for four and half billion years. That means, the moisture in your breath was once at the centre of a glacier during The Ice Age. In your frozen form, you carved valleys through unnamed mountain ranges."

When one man can make a room full of adults laugh, cry, feel excessively uncomfortable and mourn for a man they never knew all in 90 minutes, it's undeniable that something special is happening. 

Tetsuro Shigematsu, a Vanier Scholar at UBC, is performing an extended run of his one-man, one-act play Empire of the Son at The Cultch. A play that explores intercultural and intergenerational differences, Empire of the Son is a profound piece of theatrical, technical and literary mastery. 

The stories of Shigematsu — his childhood in England, growing up in Montreal, travelling to Asia, his marriage, his children and his parents – are embodied through recordings, live video as well as different voices and stances. Scenes from his childhood are portrayed through a model bathroom, a miniature mail cart and abstract representations through hand motions of conversations with his father, a former BBC radio producer.

Shigematsu read letters from his father aloud, used microphone settings to mimic the loneliness of radio broadcasting to the world and projected photos of his own children and childhood. 

Empire of the Son is a musing on feelings, what it means to be strong, whether tears are a sign of strength or weakness and how to show people that you love them. Shigematsu questions which generation in the male heritage of his family stopped being able to cry and when the cycle will end. 

The first moment of wrecked emotion in the audience was from a video clip of Shigematsu's children. A candid video was shot in his garden, the eight and 12 year old ask their father whether he had ever really cried as an adult. No answer is given. It is enough. 

Looking after his father in the last few months of his life, Shigematsu shows his struggle to express his love for his father, comparing it to the "hop in his step" when his grandfather finally returned home from being a prisoner of war. The parallels between his life and the life of his father are hauntingly heartbreaking. He tells of the way his three sisters could "coo and cluck" over him, transforming from mothers, wives, business women and then back to benevolent children again. 

Although Empire of the Son focuses largely on the nuclear relationship of Shigematsu and his parents, the second moment that brought the audience to tears was one of the few mentions of his wife. Shigematsu's mother — unable to see any light throughout the painfully slow deterioration of his father — was invited to move in by her daughter-in-law. She could see the joy the two children brought to her — a joy only children can bring. 

Playing himself and his father, Shigematsu shows immense comedic talent as he captured the spirit of the quiet, understated man who — although he had lived through bombings, fires, the infamous Marilyn Monroe birthday address and tea with the Queen — was just his father. 

The magic of Empire of the Son lies in the fact that the audience cannot tell exactly what is true and what is false. The lines between what is for theatrical effect and what is pure emotion are blurred. The intimacy of Shigematsu's performance uses subtleties that can only be indulged within a small theatre. 

What keeps the two apart is ultimately their similarities. The differences in values, culture and relationships are glaringly obvious, but the strength evident in both men is moving and inspiring.

A beautiful performance and a stunning memorial of an incredible man, Empire of the Son deserves every single sold out show.