A Glass Menagerie

Look Back In Angura

In Japan, there's a popular soft drink that uses a marble as its stopper. In order to take a sip, you have to push the marble down into the bottle, where it gets trapped. If you're Japanese and look at a glass marble, it's likely to evoke images of these well-known, womblike containers— an enclosed, liquid space with a bobbing mass inside.

When Japanese avant-garde theater director Sujin Kim incorporates a raining cascade of glass marbles into his production of A Cry From the City of Virgins, audiences in his country get the allusion to the shattering of a womb. But when the play— written by Juro Kara, one of postwar Japan's most formidable dramatic visionaries— is performed here at the Japan Society (September 29 through October 2), New Yorkers will likely see only what's literally onstage. It's an extra artistic challenge for a historically famous play that's metaphorically knotty even in Japanese.

"When angura, the Japanese underground theater movement, first started, there was a lot of resistance to it because it was so open to varied interpretations," says Kim, through a translator during a telephone interview from his home in Japan. He adds mischievously: "What I'm really looking forward to are some amazing and wonderful misinterpretations."

A Cry from the City of Virgins: a landmark play from Japan's underground theater movement
A Cry from the City of Virgins: a landmark play from Japan's underground theater movement

One of the works of continuing influence to emerge from Japan's daring Small Theater Movement of the 1960s and '70s, A Cry From the City of Virgins has been repeatedly produced and rewritten by Kara ever since— though never produced here. It concerns a soldier, Tabuchi, who surreally discovers during surgery that he may have a living twin sister. She's in danger because a scientist is trying to turn her body into glass, and only Tabuchi can save her from this fate.

"Glass is transparent, it's neutral and cold, but it has a sparkle and a life of its own. It's in a delicate balance," explains Kim about the piece's leitmotif. "A large influence on the visual style of the play is the search for permanence. Things that are mineral, nonorganic, hold interest— these, in at least an illusory sense, don't fade away. Within that palette, glass is the most attractive element." An ice castle figures into the story, "as a metaphor," Kim says, "for Japan's response to the West. In one sense, Japan saw the West as a pure, pristine thing and wanted to break away from the fly-infested organism that was Japanese culture."

Kara used Japan's underground theater movement, which he helped to found, as a way to search for both his own identity in postwar Japan and the identity of his generation. A rebel against the highly Westernized dramatic form shingeki— with its stodgy hierarchy of playwright, director, and actor— Kara pitched his 1967 Red Tent movement on revolutionary ground. He did away with the traditional preeminence of the playwright and created an empowered actors' theater, performing his plays under a tent instead of inside a building. "The circus was a huge inspiration," says Kara, who'll participate in a September 28 panel discussion at the Japan Society with Andrei Serban, Ann Bogart, and script translator Leon Ingulsrud. "The circus to me was not just a fun and beautiful place, but also a place where you can run away, that's scary and threatening as well.

"The play is ultimately a joining of that which exists with that which doesn't— reality and unreality. A large part of the play's vocabulary is universal," Kara says. "What I'd like to share are my dreams and my terror."

 
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