A number of my friends in the Theatre department put together and performed “Asian fusion one-acts” this week, as a final project for their graduate-level course in Asian Directing. I was somewhat hesitant to write anything about it, because I’m afraid of them reading this, and my being critical. But, really, there’s hardly anything to be critical of. Some of these scenes – original pieces, written and directed by the Directing students as I understand it, and starring many of my friends – were really incredible. With a little tweaking, they could (and should!), I think, be seen elsewhere.
First, let me talk about “IF”, directed by Jillian Blakkan-Strauss. It is an adaptation of the Pandora legend, drawing heavily upon Butoh. Michelle Boudreau as Pandora, blindfolded, is attacked and subdued by three “evils” – Erin Chung, Danny Randerson, and Yining Lin dressed & made-up head to toe in white, crawling, creeping, gyrating, and otherwise moving along in a rather disturbing and very Butoh fashion. They tear black garbage bags, and ultimately cover Pandora in them, while Hope, played by Jasmine Yep, super cute, innocent, playful and happy in pigtails, smiles and blows bubbles.
Zeus (Lavour Addison) emerges, in all black but with a glinting metal crown of leaves and a (Indonesian-style?) mask, his dance, in the traditional Indonesian topeng style, a sort of ritual or spell pulling the evils back into the box. By now they’ve infiltrated the audience, climbing under legs and over chairs, terrorizing the audience members. I was glad to see that my friends from the Art dept class in Performance Art had joined us in the audience for this one.
Zeus frees Pandora, but if I recall correctly, it ends in the end with the evils escaping once more, and locking Pandora in the box, with Hope.
In terms of analysis or “review,” I’m not quite sure what to say, except that it was expertly performed and very well conceived and put together. I do not know how the assignment was articulated, but if it was along the lines of simply adapting Asian performance traditions to a new and different performance, this was brilliant, and worked very well.
I sadly do not remember what kind of music was used, but it fit quite well. The butoh movements and costume for the evils was a brilliant touch, and while I had never heard of, let alone seen, topeng before, its ritualized movements worked quite well for the character of Zeus, and for his divine magical act of pulling the evils back into their box. Though these Indonesian movements are of course totally foreign to the ancient Greek setting, they worked very well for Pandora (Michelle) as well, helping both characters to embody or exude a feeling of ritual, of magic, of myth really – even if not truly a “Greek” sort of flavor, nevertheless, an element that really ensured the feeling that this was a mythic setting, an allegory, featuring gods or legends.
The piece was, of course, very experimental and modernist in flavor, and would likely fit better in a Fringe Festival or the like than an “Asian theatre” event, but no matter… it was absorbing and powerful. I wish I had photos or, better yet, video, to share with you, because otherwise I’m not sure there’s much to be gleaned no matter how many words I write out. (At this point, I guess in a way it’s more just for me, then, isn’t it, this whole exercise…)
Next, Dalang Govang, the Spirit Dalang, directed by Annie Reynolds. I don’t know that I’ve ever really seen Indonesian theatre before, so this was quite a treat. I have been to gamelan concerts, and have seen dances, but this went a step further, with narration, wayang kulit shadow puppets, and live action performance.
Unlike the other pieces, this didn’t seem so much an Asian fusion of different styles and modes, or an adaptation of a mode to a story foreign to it. Perhaps there was something I missed – that it’s a Northern Bali story normally not set to puppets, being performed with Southern Bali movement techniques or something like that. In any case, it was quite enjoyable.
There’s something about gamelan music that I find quite relaxing and meditative. It draws you in to its world, a world of distinctively Indonesian flavor, something only enhanced by the distinctively Indonesian puppets, dance movements, and masks. I Made Widana did an excellent job not only as drummer and chanter, but as the village elder of the neighboring village, his bent back and movements combining with the carved wooden “old man” mask to make him really seem the character, while Desiree Seguritan as the young priestess & dalang (puppeteer/storyteller) likewise, through her dance and mask, really embodied the character wonderfully. The masks remind me of Noh somewhat, in how they are (in the case of the dalang’s, at least; not so much the old man’s) smaller than the actor’s face, and of course in how they don’t change expression or move, but still somehow manage to express everything that needs to be expressed. The movements, also, not an actual dance performance, but rather, a sort of “living in dance,” in which the actors, in everything they do, even in standing still, are constantly dancing, slowly, gently, quietly. Much like the movements in Jillian’s piece (drawn from the same topeng tradition), these really helped place the story into a sort of mythic, or at least “magical realism” sort of context.
Even just the gamelan alone was a real pleasure; to experience an entire theatre form so different from what I’m used to, and which so pulls you in to its world of music, shadow puppets, and movements, its world of a very particular distinct flavor, was really wonderful.
Evelyn Leung’s piece “Act I, Scene IV” was an adaption of the story of Snow White, drawing considerably from Noh and Kabuki, and with a major twist. I appreciated the title, a reference to the practice current in kabuki of performing only select scenes from a play – though they do sometimes perform a play in its entirety, more often than not, only certain popular scenes are performed, while other scenes from that play are performed only rarely, or have dropped out of the repertoire entirely.
The play opens with the Queen (Dani Belvin), in a black kimono, providing exposition, about how her daughter, so beautiful with her raven hair, pale white skin, and red red lips, is a demon who has killed her husband. The kabuki & Noh movements throughout this piece were wonderfully done, the Queen gesturing with her fan and using it as stand-in for any number of objects. A large mirror stands to the side; she asks it to reveal the true nature of her daughter, and a koken (stagehand) pulls a black curtain to reveal Snow White (Michelle Boudreau) behind it – a marvelous stage effect. She dances and gestures behind the empty mirror frame, seeming from the point of view of the audience to be appearing within the magical mirror.
The rock music theme for the Queen gives way to a light, fun sort of musical theme as Snow White smiles cutely and dances slowly in a sparkling white furisode, gesturing with her fan, which she uses to good effect to represent a light snowfall in the way it would be done in Nihon Buyô. … The music turns angry, as she lets down her hair into a snakelike braid and puts on a hannya mask, becoming the yuki-onna. She points her fan straight ahead as she steps forward out of the mirror, as demons or perhaps madwomen do in Noh, not entirely unlike Sadako in The Ring, a gesture which, especially in the Noh tradition, comes across as quite frightening, powerful and direct. She attacks the Queen and then exits having done no harm – perhaps she was only a spirit, and not truly present?
The Queen sends the Hunter after the girl, the twist in the plot culminating as the scene plays out not all that differently from how it normally does, despite the reversed good/evil dynamic in this adaptation. The Hunter goes after the girl, who stops him, spinning a purple Japanese umbrella which, pointed towards the audience, conceals the two as she comes in for the kill, kissing him and breathing frost into his lungs as the Yuki-onna is wont to do.
The modern music blends perfectly with the experimental/modernist feel of the exercise, not jarring at all against the traditional costumes and movements; Evelyn pulls movements from Noh, kabuki, and buyô – especially in terms of the use of the fan – very, very well, and her actors perform them well, in everything from the indication of the snow fall, to the queen’s gestures as she talks about and points to the girl’s raven black hair and red red lips, to the rather disturbing way the demon very purposefully walks forward out of the mirror.
The final performance I’ll talk about – listed in no particular order, by the way, as some of these were performed tonight, and some a few days ago – was arranged (written) and directed by Nick Ish, based on the story of Kaguya-hime.
Nick’s show was full of tons of inside jokes, including excerpted lines from our recent kabuki show, “The Vengeful Sword,” and all kinds of other things. I suppose, since this is really only a production for within the department, for a class, that sort of slightly silly attitude about it is no big deal. And even less of a big deal considering how excellent every other aspect was.
Kaguya-hime, if you are unfamiliar, is the oldest (proto-)science fiction story in the Japanese literary canon. First written down in the 10th century or so, it is a story about a bamboo-cutter (think woodcutter, but with bamboo instead) who finds a baby girl inside a glowing stalk of bamboo (along with a pile of gold) and raises her as his own. I had read about that much in the original Japanese as part of the classical Japanese course I took last summer in Kyoto, but wasn’t really familiar with the rest of the story. Three suitors come seeking her hand in marriage, and she sends them all away on impossible tasks – one to gain the fire-cloak of the fire-rat, one to seize a pearl from the Dragon King, and one to bring back a golden branch from the Mountain of Immortality. They all fail, as they must, for she is not human and cannot take a husband – rather, she is a princess from the Moon! Those three suitors sent away, it is revealed that she has fallen in love with the imperial prince, but warriors from the Moon Kingdom come down and fight to take her back, and in the end, she must leave with them.
Moon people. In a tenth century classical Japanese tale. Awesome.
Joy Higashino was sweet, cute, and beautiful in a sparkling white furisode as Princess Kaguya. Murray Husted, striking in a tweed jacket, played her father, the bamboo cutter, and also the narrator, in a sort of rakugo / bunraku sort of fashion. The breaking of walls, so to speak, when the narrator became the father again, and was attacked by the Moon Warriors, was excellent.
In addition to the great skill with which various Asian performance techniques were deployed, and the costumes, what I loved about this production the most was the gender switching that went on, and the integrated combinations of performance styles. Three women (Jillian Blakkan-Strauss, Meg Thiel, and Evelyn Leung) played powerfully masculine samurai suitors, among other roles, while Jae Iha, as the Imperial Prince, also powerfully embodied the samurai stance and way of moving, and cut some powerful mie. The samurai, Prince, and Kaguya employed kabuki voice, and kabuki & Noh movements, but when the first suitor traveled “far to the West, across the sea and beyond the Middle Kingdom,” i.e. to India, the fire-rat (Dani Belvin) danced a very Indian dance, and when the second suitor found his way “far across the sea,” rowing his boat in the manner of a Noh, he found a Dragon King (Kristina Tannenbaum) skilled in
Javanese Sumatran randai martial arts.
The Moon Warriors were, essentially, Chinese, fighting in a jingju style with long spears, and here was where it really got interesting. The music always fit the country or culture being most represented on stage at that point, and I don’t remember what was done at this point, but the Chinese jingju spear fighting was combined seamlessly with kabuki tachimawari swordfighting in a way that just really put a smile on my face. What skill, that these three women changed costumes and not only changed characters, but changed performance styles, shifting out of the Noh/kabuki mode of their samurai suitor characters, and into the jingju movements and voice of the Moon Warriors, even as the Prince and his samurai (played by Dani Belvin & Kristina Tannenbaum) maintained their Kabuki manner.
Kaguya-hime shed her kimono, “transforming” into her celestial Moon Warrior form herself, fighting with a pair of Chinese swords in a jingju manner, breaking up the fight between the others, and eventually surrendering herself to return to the Moon, leaving her love, the Prince, forever.
The incorporation of all these different styles and modes was really something to see, and between that, and the music, and the costumes, and the expert way the story was adapted to a performance (how did any of you people find time for playwrighting while doing everything else too!? And how talented are you people!?), made this something I was really glad not to miss.
All of this really reminds me of a Noh performance I saw years ago in London, something very much modern and Western and experimental and whatever, but drawing upon Noh, and employing an unusual but really quite entrancing and wonderful Swiss musical instrument called the hang. (I wrote up my reactions and thoughts at the time on my personal private journal; I’ll have to re-post those here at some point, along with links to reviews and such. I’d love to see it again, especially with my Theatre friends from here, see what they have to say about it.)
I’m not so engaged in the theatre world that I ever really know about, or have been to with any frequency, shows like this which incorporate traditional East Asian performance modes, movements, techniques, into something new and black-box. But these shows this week have really been quite stunning, thought-provoking, and enjoyable, and I would love to see more of this sort of thing…