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Written by Yasuhiko Ohashi

Translated by M. Cody Poulton

Directed by Jim Millan

Starring Melinda Deines, John O'Callaghan, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon

At the Factory Studio Theatre

in Toronto

Rating: ***

Romeo and Juliet never had it this bad. The star-crossed lovers theme gets radioactive when a young Japanese girl falls in love with the king of the monsters in the campy yet sly and absurdly funny Godzilla.

The original 1954 Godzilla film was actually a profound metaphor for the wounded state of post-Second World War Japan, until Hollywood and franchise sucked all the meaning out of the monster. Japanese playwright Yasuhiko Ohashi's award-winning 1987 play revisits the beast with wit, affection and intelligence. What could be a cartoonish story about overcoming the obstacles to love actually hits a few truths about prejudice and what truly makes us human.

When Yayoi (Melinda Deines) takes home her new boyfriend, Godzilla (John O'Callaghan), to meet her parents, they are understandably horrified. It's not just that her father wanted a son-in-law he could play mahjong with, but that they're a little concerned about the form their grandchildren might take.

M. Cody Poulton's translation of Ohashi's script has a lot of goofy charm. While it might help to know your Ultraman from your Rodan to catch all the pop-culture allusions, you don't have to be a Godzilla fanatic to recognize the personal struggles of the characters as they grapple with the idea of a kinder, gentler lizard.

The unreal nature of the play also comes through in some unusual casting. As Godzilla, O'Callaghan has an endearing awkwardness. He's all sinking shoulders and bashful speeches (made almost poetic in his Dublin lilt), as he tries to please the father of his love and avoid crushing their house with his imaginary tail.

Melinda Deines (well-equipped to deal with the apocalyptic from her past work on television's Earth: Final Conflict) is remarkable as she imbues Yayoi with an idealistic sweetness that refreshingly never strays into saccharine.

Jean Yoon ( The Yoko Ono Project) smartly realizes Yayoi's grandmother, with nerves of steel to match her neuroses as she rules her son's house. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee plays up the campiness particularly well. He provides a lot of spirited humour doing double-duty as the prophetic wheelchair-bound narrator and the down-on-his-heels monster, Mothra, reduced to spinning cocoons for cash after his movie career tanks.

From the first production, playwright Ohashi insisted that the monster characters be played by actors outfitted in everyday human dress, and it's a smart idea well carried out here. Seeing Godzilla in a suit or Mothra in bowling-alley casual provides a visual image rich with multiple meanings, subtly leading us to question whether or not the clothes make the monster.

But while there are lots of clever visual puns (an emergency scene manages to have live actors lypsynching their lines), this play should be a lot more fun that it is.

Occasionally, the pacing falters and the energy moves from atomic to wind-powered. At times, O'Callaghan's awkwardness is too intense and a little out of rhythm with the other actors. Grandmother's reminiscences about her first love affair with a tadpole go on a bit too long and don't achieve quite the comic or lyrical effect they should.

Still, as the movies show, it's impossible to keep a good lizard down. And Godzilla is a celebration and exploration of monstrous love. Godzilla continues at the Factory Studio Theatre in Toronto to Oct. 13. For information call 416-504-9971.

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