Originally a form of street performance, Rakugo offers a minimalist style of storytelling developed during the Edo period in Japan nearly 400 years ago. Dressed in a kimono and armed only with a fan and small towel, the Rakugo performer never rises from a sitting position. But he transforms the fan and towel into any number of props--chopsticks, a pen, a book, a letter--and can impersonate any of a dozen set characters, male or female, by changing his posture, facial expression, and tone of voice. Like Kabuki, Rakugo is bound by ritual and tightly integrates music, movement, and the spoken word. But unlike Kabuki, Rakugo offers short, comical scenes of everyday life handed down for generations: a husband and wife quarreling or two friends--one quick, the other not--striking a deal with a merchant. In one hilarious variation on that theme, two street sharps try to shortchange a merchant, confusing him while he counts the money; the punch line is the merchant's quick, elegant evasion. To a Westerner familiar with the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello, Rakugo stories recall those comedians and their origins in vaudeville and burlesque. And a new generation of Rakugo performers is now aggressively pointing out the parallels between this art form and more contemporary entertainment--like stand-up comedy--producing something of a Rakugo resurgence in Japan today. TV comedian Katsura Sanshi and his pupils will perform a lecture-demonstration at the School of the Art Institute in Japanese; a simultaneous English translation will be available (reservations recommended). School of the Art Institute of Chicago, ballroom, 112 S. Michigan, 312-263-3049. Friday, June 29, 6:30 PM. Free.

--Jack Helbig

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