5 X NO
Next Theatre Company
No author in the secular 20th century has reflected romanticism's morbid preoccupation with death more strongly than the late Yukio Mishima, whose obsession with erotic violence (he once had a photograph taken of himself posed as Saint Sebastian at the moment of martyrdom) and with the past glories of his native Japan inspired a profusion of literary works and a lurid personal life that culminated in a sensational ritual suicide in 1970. That he should have turned to Japanese antiquity--14th-century No theater--for his five short plays, presented under the title 5 X No, should come as no surprise.
The theme of all but one of them is the devastation wrought by perverted sexuality. In "The Cloth Drum," a janitor kills himself for love of a haughty lady, only to find his ghost spurned. In "The Lady Aoi," a jilted woman's vengeful spirit torments the wife of the man who rejected her. In "Sotoba Komachi," a crone is transformed into a lovely young coquette for one night every year, bringing doom to whoever admires her beauty. And in "Hanjo," the title character maintains a trancelike stasis as she waits for her lost lover, who returns too late to rescue her from her own madness or her possessive, perhaps lesbian guardian (a potentially sinister personality made believable and even sympathetic by Isabel Liss, who also redeems the superficially coldhearted lady of "The Cloth Drum").
The only relief in this necrophiliac parade of femmes fatales and thwarted desires is "Kantan." A bored, cynical young man returns to the home of his faithful nanny, widowed by a magic pillow that robs sleepers of the will to live. Convinced that he has nothing to lose, the youth braves the pillow and discovers that his ennui protects him: frustrated ambitions sparked by dreams were the undoing of his predecessors. Rejecting lofty goals, he breaks the spell and awakens with a new reverence for life.
As presented by Next Theatre Company, these No tales are twice retold. Mishima shaped them to convey his own vision in 1957, and director Dexter Bullard likewise deviates from tradition in order to make them more comprehensible to modern Western audiences. Bullard not only introduces such contemporary accoutrements as portable telephones but--in defiance of the formality that characterizes No theater--incorporates the imaginative choreography that has become his own stock-in-trade. In "The Lady Aoi" when the ghostly seductress (played with serpentine allure by the always-intriguing Maggie Doyle) attempts to reawaken the affections of the horrified husband (rendered with a quiet presence and economy by Reginald Hayes) by recalling a boat ride they once shared, the hospital-bed sheets of the tortured wife become the sail fluttering behind them, and her groans the creaking of the mast. And in "The Cloth Drum" when the distraught janitor (a potentially ridiculous role given dignity by Jeff N. Strong) leaps from what we are told is a high window, he seems to spiral through the air to the pavement even though the tiny space allows for an actual fall of only a foot or two.
Robert G. Smith's set approximates the traditional Japanese stage, whose indispensable promenade encircles the forestage, with an arrangement whereby the audience is seated parallel to a retractable bridge connecting two bare-platform playing areas. Among the other innovative touches are several ingenious light and water effects--though the water vapor used to cast a mysterious haze over the auditorium raises the humidity to an uncomfortable level. Ultimately, however, Bullard's inventive interpretation and his cast's meticulous performances are what make 5 X No a vibrant, entertaining introduction to this long-ignored form of Asian theater.
Purists shocked by Next Theatre's cavalier treatment of tradition will become positively apoplectic at Doorika's Saajury. This episodic performance piece, said in the program to be "inspired by research of formal aspects of Japanese culture, television, film and literature," cites Mishima as one of its sources as well as filmmakers Kenji Mizoguchi and Nagisa Oshima. But the Japanese motif is evident only in the enigmatic narrative, which involves two pairs of lovers who cheat on their partners with tragic results, one linguistically accurate sentence, and a painted backdrop depicting such national icons as Mount Fuji, Godzilla, Hokusai's woodcut of tidal waves, and a sumo wrestler.
Primarily an exercise in kinetic and aural improvisation--the basis for this production, directed by Doorika cofounder Erika Yeomans--Saajury frequently arrives at its most original and startling effects through the simplest of means: a scene played in silhouette against the streetlamp-lit windows of Doorika's loft space, for instance. Or an actor utterly immobile except for one hand striking the floor rhythmically, first with the palm, then the knuckles. Or two scenes played simultaneously, not side by side as in conventional theater but downstage and upstage--evoking the cinematic technique of changing focus from foreground to background, though here the audience, not the camera, must refocus repeatedly.
It's strenuous for both performers and audience, this hour's worth of constant motion and near-seamless vocalization alleviated only by a score featuring such diverse musical forms as big-band jazz, cinema noir sound tracks, and fuzz-bass rock and roll. But the dazzling displays of physical agility and imagination by this innovative little company make it all worthwhile.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/D. Bullard.