Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The First Noh & Kyogen Program Witnessed by Americans"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"THE FIRST NOH & KYOGEN PROGRAM WITNESSED BY AMERICANS"

English subtitles by Laurence Kominz

“Mochizuki” [han-noh (half-noh)]

Ozawa --- shite (principal character) … Umewaka Rokuro
The son on Lord Tomoharu Yasuda --- ko-kata (child’s role) … Odagiri Ryoma
Koken (stagehands) … Akase Masanori; Yamanaka Gasho
Ji-utai (chorus) … Yamazaki Masamichi; Takao Yukinori; Takao Akihiro; Kakuto Naotaka

Musicians:

Fue [flute] … Isso Takayuki
Kotsuzumi [small drum] … Shimizu Kosuke
Otsuzumi [large drum] … Kamei Hirotada
Taiko [drum] … Okawa Noriyoshi


“The Trapping of the Fox” (Tsurigitsune) [kyogen]

Trapper’s Uncle --- mae-shite (principal first half) … Yamamoto Norishige
Old Fox --- nochi-shite (principal second half) … Yamamoto Noritoshi
Trapper --- ado (companion role) … Yamamoto Norihide
Koken (stagehands) … Yamamoto Noritaka; Endo Hiroyoshi

Musicians:

Fue [flute] … Isso Takayuki
Kotsuzumi [small drum] … Shimizu Kosuke
Otsuzumi [large drum] … Kamei Hirotada


“Earth Spider” (Tsuchigumo) [noh]

Priest --- mae-shite (principal first half) … Umewaka Shinya
Spider --- nochi-shite (principal second half) … Umewaka Rokuro
Lord Minamoto Raikou --- tsure (companion) … Kakuto Naotaka
Warrior --- waki (secondary character) … Fukuo Shigejuro
Servant --- waki tsure (secondary companion) … Fukuo Tomotaka; Yamamoto Junzo
Koken (stagehands) … Akase Masanori; Yamazaki Masamichi
Ji-utai (chorus) … Odagiri Yasuharu; Takao Akihiro; Takao Yukinori; Yamanaka Gasho; Matsuyama Takayuki; Naito Yukio

Musicians:

Fue [flute] … Isso Takayuki
Kotsuzumi [small drum] … Shimizu Kosuke
Otsuzumi [large drum] … Kamei Hirotada
Taiko [drum] … Okawa Noriyoshi

The disappointment that I felt over the Abbey Theatre’s recent deconstruction of THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD has been eclipsed by a genuine article: in celebration of the 150th anniversary of United States-Japan relations, the Japan Society of Boston recreated an evening of traditional Noh (drama) and kyogen (comedy) pieces that were performed for former President Ulysses S. Grant during a state visit in 1879. Due to rapid Westernization, the Noh tradition had declined; President Grant’s approval rekindled interest and kept Noh from extinction. The program, which will also tour New York, San Antonio, Atlanta and New Orleans, is performed by Japan’s finest Noh actors and musicians and stars Umewaka Rokuro, whose great-grandfather was among those who performed for President and Mrs. Grant.

Grant-like, I was fascinated by this art form that began two centuries before Shakespeare’s birth and is still performed in the same exact style (kabuki, the “low” to Noh’s “high”, came later). The 1879 program was a shrewd selection for Western tastes, leaning towards action and visuals (traditional Noh is more symbolic and much, much slower): “Mochizuki” was a revenge-tragedy, featuring the celebrated Lion Dance which would later become a part of Stephen Sondheim’s PACIFIC OVERTURES; in the comic “The Trapping of the Fox”, a trickster fox outwitted a sober-sided trapper (the trapper’s repeated grunts of amazement were translated onscreen as “You Don’t Say!”); “Earth Spider” closed the evening with an epic battle between a trio of noble warriors and a monstrous spider. Still, there were plenty of Noh conventions to make an indelible impression: the scaling down of the traditional Noh stage with four truncated pillars symbolizing the poles that define the playing area; the all-male ensemble (though the program notes mention that Noh companies now employ actresses, as well); the stylized movements, down to exact footwork for crossing the stage; the hypnotic singing and chanting that may strike Western ears as grunts, yowls and yelps, accompanied by the shrill piping of the fue (flute) and accented by the kotsuzumi (a drum that is kept moist to produce a hollow sound akin to a faucet dripping into a bucket) and the otsuzumi (a drum that is heated before performance to produce the sharp, dry sound akin to woodblocks being struck together); the slowing down and bending of Time (the “Fox”, a fifteen-minute sketch, becomes a fifty-minute cosmic farce); the use of silence as an instrument --- in “Mochizuki”, the drums were slowly, rhythmically thumped to signal the hero’s approach, paradoxically making his entrance all the more momentous. Like the breathtaking webs that the Earth Spider flung at its victims, a seductive net of sight and sound was erected, drawing in its audience, temporarily dispelled by Mr. Rokuro making a (translated) speech of welcome during intermission --- an unnecessary meeting of East meets West, doubly underscored by the ensemble taking no curtain calls despite rapturous applause.

Mr. Rokuro played the avenging hero of “Mochizuki”; his Lion Dance was more a demonstration than the tour-de-force hinted at in the program but his Earth Spider was a sinister success thanks to movements florid yet restrained and those webs that resembled white fireworks exploding sideways, clinging to the warriors, the stage and even the proscenium arch in inspired malevolence. Yamamoto Norishige played the disguised Fox as a commedia-like figure, hopping about and accenting his declamation with a stick; Yamamoto Noritoshi played the Fox undisguised, wearing a full-length orange costume complete with fox-mask that made him resemble a pantomime animal --- the Fox is said to be one of the most demanding, complex roles in the kyogen repertoire which may be why two actors were used, here, for Mr. Norishige sang throughout in heldentenor fashion and Mr. Noritoshi had to emit a series of soaring, arching howls in addition to their both having to be nimble of foot. Eight-year-old Odagiri Ryoma, a five-year Noh veteran, impressively executed a complex solo dance as “Mochizuki”’s avenging son.

Oddly, for all its dissonance (again, to Western ears), the evening was a relaxing one and a welcome respite from the pouring rain and the frenzies of the holiday season (Time, you see, stopped for two hours). Noh drama when traditionally performed throws a light on Western drama which is composed of individuals, conflict, noise and action (this does not imply one is better than the other but, rather, opposites can illuminate as well as contrast --- and, on occasion, cross-fertilize). Had the Society’s evening been updated in any way, its magic would have been diminished --- the audience, once it accepted the rules, were enchanted with this display of Japan’s still-living past, needing no interpretation to find parallels in their own lives: it’s a lesson the Abbey Theatre sadly forgot with its centennial celebration of Mr. Synge’s masterpiece.

HELP SAVE BOSTON’S HISTORIC GAIETY THEATRE!

"The First Noh & Kyogen Program Witnessed by Americans" (7 December only)
THE JAPAN SOCIETY OF BOSTON
The John Hancock Hall, 180 Berkeley Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 451-0726

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