The Austin Chronicle

GenEnCo's 893 | Ya-ku-za

This suspenseful two-hander serves up tension in its silences as much as its words

Reviewed by T. Lynn Mikeska, February 2, 2018, Arts

There's an old joke that an acting professor I had used to tell: One night at dinner, an 8-year-old child says, "Pass the salt."

His parents look on in awe. Then his father says, "My boy, these are the first words your mother and I have ever heard you speak! Why have you waited until this moment to say something??"

And the boy says, "Well, up until now, everything was fine."

It may not be the best attempt at humor, but the jest contains some sage wisdom for storytellers. Dialogue works best when each line is something someone absolutely must say. In 893 | Ya-ku-za, actor Mia King and actor/co-director kt shorb not only master the importance of speaking only when it is essential, they fully explore the space between the lines of text, creating a work filled with tension that takes the audience with it every step of the way toward its dark (and unavoidable) conclusion.

As the story begins, Aya (King) is waiting on one hell of a job interview. She is intent on joining the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and is about to meet the man in charge in a private room in the back of a restaurant for a meal that will determine her fate. When the ringleader (shorb) arrives, he informs Aya that at the end of lunch, she will be getting in a limo with him – either by his side or in the trunk.

And the game is on. As the two talk and eat, the audience is left wondering who is cat and who is mouse in a situation so charged with the prospect of violence that even something as simple as serving a particular piece of sushi becomes a nefarious gesture. But the most engaging aspect of the performances in 893 | Ya-ku-za is how much happens in complete silence. As these two characters face off, plans are made and unmade in a matter of minutes, and both people maintain a calm, almost polite demeanor as they test each other's loyalties while simultaneously plotting each other's demise. It makes for an incredibly realistic and intense acting experience.

But that same dedication to realism, subtext, and silence ultimately grinds to a halt in the play's climax with a very involved and extended fight scene, complete with blood and gore effects. While the idea of an epic fight is certainly a fantastic payoff in this tense 60-minute thriller (and the blood effects, provided by Amelia Turner, deliver quite the shock factor), the overly stylized nature of the fight choreography ultimately makes unreal what has been a very realistic experience thus far, and the two styles of theatre, when married, don't deliver the one-two punch that is promised in Daria Miyeko Marinelli's gracefully minimal and finessed script.

But many other elements of 893 | Ya-ku-za stand strong. The set, designed by Iman Corbani (and constructed by Saray de Jesus Rosales, Brandi Alexander, Alex Cogburn, Megan Kemp, and Elaine Jacobs) is a reflection of the performances: elegant, simple, and essential, with incredible attention to detail. Jess O'Rear has designed an omnipresent cacophony of classic rock underscored with the sounds of a busy hot spot that forever intrudes upon King and shorb's cliffhanger silences, adding even more tension to an already tense situation.

A word of warning: If you are a sushi fan, you will probably want to hit up your favorite place after seeing 893 | Ya-ku-za. And because the show runs only an hour, you can make it happen. You'll definitely have everything you need for an awesome dinner conversation.

893 | Ya-Ku-Za

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through Feb. 10
Running time: 1 hr.

Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.