A grandmother who commits suicide by lighting herself on fire in a car. A staid scientist father who belts out karaoke songs. A sackful of broken Japanese records, smashed in haste before the trip to an internment camp.
These are some of the compelling images in playwright-performance artist Denise Uyehara's "Headless Turtleneck Relatives," at Highways. But the dreamscape of family memories is only half the pleasure of this accomplished solo. The rest is Uyehara herself, who's as graceful and agile onstage as she is on the page.
Beginning as a young girl mortified by her grandmother's supply of kamaboko (Japanese fish cake), Uyehara slips in and out of personas from several generations of her family. One minute, she becomes her ancestor simply by pulling an oversized shirt over her head, walking stooped and speaking in an old woman's voice. And the next, she's a young woman of the '90s, preening and psyching up for a night on the town.
Her transitions are fluid and economical, the telling of her tales pointed and the performance itself pristine. The material careens from tragedy to irony, and from past to present to future. Yet the intensity builds as the work moves toward its final section, in which Uyehara recounts her grandmother's self-immolation.