SUMO Delivers at La Jolla Playhouse

Often described as a blend of religion and the National Football League, the centuries-old sport of sumo holds a grip in Japanese culture, but it’s mostly unknown or misunderstood in Western culture. The production of La Jolla Playhouse provides a lens through which we learn more.

As each of the large actors come onto the stage it is unclear whose story will be told. Although each of the characters becomes well developed over the course of the evening, we are drawn to the neophyte, who is mostly mopping up after the training fighters. With a little bit of The Karate Kid thrown in, we see the budding relationship between master and neophyte.

The stage, well designed by Wilson Chin, mostly represents the elite training facility in Tokyo, but clever lighting and subtle shifts in props take us outside the facility occasionally. The play is ably directed by Ralph B. Peña (artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater) from an ambitious script by Lisa Sanaye Dring. The production features live taiko drumming.

All sports have had their betting scandals, and as pointed out in the first Freakonomics book, sumo is no exception. None of that is referenced in the play, although the importance of winning and sponsorship is crucial to ongoing longevity, seemingly the case of all sports.

Credit to both Scott Keiji Takeda and David Shih as the student and master, respectively. Their relationship is alternately funny, terrifying, and ultimately engaging. The LaJolla Playhouse has again entered into rather uncharted territories with ambition and near success.


Photos by Rich Soublet II

Tickets available here.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.